Accommodating new perspectives

TWO POWERFUL AND contradictory images come to mind when I’m asked to reflect on my experience of attending the United Nations Climate Change Summit in Paris. The first image (dated 12 December 2015) is of delegates leaping to their feet and cheering wildly as chair Laurent Fabius announces that – yes! – agreement has been reached on the Paris Agreement.

The second photo, taken only a few weeks later in Tasmania, is of the black and smouldering fire-scorched wasteland which was, until recently, home to some of the oldest and most magnificent of Earth’s forests. The stark contrast between these two images helps explain the two tough questions that continue to trouble the sleep of many climate scientists, policy makers and activists.

Endorsement of long-term global warming goals of 1.5 degrees and net-zero emissions were welcome – and perhaps surprising – outcomes. The abiding problem, as the world’s climate scientists continue to remind us, is that the Paris Agreement commitments don’t yet come close to keeping global warming below 2 degrees  – let alone 1.5 degrees. The first, most urgent task is therefore crystal clear. What are the actions needed to rapidly accelerate the implementation and scaling up of the Paris Agreement commitments?

Noting the global warming trends already in the pipeline, most plausible climatic scenarios still require us to imagine and prepare for a planetary climate far tougher than the relatively benign Holocene world that human beings have been fortunate enough to inhabit for the last ten thousand years. A great deal of hard work and a lot of luck may enable us to avoid some of the most catastrophic climate tipping points. We are all, however, on a journey into a world of more frequent and more severe weather events – more heatwaves, more fires, more droughts, more storms. This journey will be particularly hard for the poorest and most vulnerable of peoples.

The second tough question keeping me awake at night, and the one on which these reflections focus, is therefore: what sources of wisdom and insight might best enable us to face a harsh climate future with honesty, courage and compassion?

Research on responses to potentially catastrophic risks such as bushfires and pandemics confirms that – while necessary – timely and honest recognition of the scale and speed of approaching threats is not a sufficient basis for effective action. As Barrack Obama noted in his 2016 State of the Union address, the scientific evidence on climate change trends, causes and consequences is now overwhelming: ‘Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You’ll be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and two hundred nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.’

The emerging concern is that wishful thinking and naive optimism (particularly the faith being placed in unproven, ‘leap of faith’ technologies such as bioenergy, carbon capture and storage, and geo-engineering) are replacing outright denial as key obstacles standing in the way of decisive climate action. French social theorist Bruno Latour has proposed a peculiarly Australian strain of this disease: ‘The Australian strategy of voluntary sleepwalking toward catastrophe…makes a lot of sense: not thinking ahead is probably, when you are an Australian and given what is coming, the most rational thing to do.’ [1] Latour’s provocation leads me to reflect on the risks of emotional burn-out and despair, which periodically threaten to overwhelm many long-term climate-change researchers and activists. There are certainly moments when closing my eyes and walking away becomes extremely tempting, given the bleak human and ecological consequences of worst-case climate change scenarios.

ALL OF US have our own preferred sources of wisdom, insight and inspiration for walking the middle path between foolish optimism and nihilistic despair. Here are a few of the sources that work for me, drawn from a very eclectic library of history and philosophy, theology and spirituality, politics and poetry.

In making this selection, I am struck by the recent comments by Pope Francis on the value of opening up a respectful dialogue between diverse perspectives and traditions:

Given the complexity of the ecological crisis and its multiple causes, we need to realise that the solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality. Respect must also be shown for the various cultural riches of different peoples, their art and poetry, their interior life and spirituality. If we are truly concerned to develop an ecology capable of remedying the damage we have done, no branch of the sciences and no form of wisdom can be left out.

From the historical insights of writers like Howard Zinn, Hannah Arendt and Rebecca Solnit, I am usefully reminded of the energy and courage we can gain from recognising the unpredictable, contingent and contested nature of human history. As Howard Zinn, the author of A People’s History of the United States (Harper & Row, 1980), notes:

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness… If we remember those times and places – and there are so many – where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.

The speed with which climate change tipping points are approaching means that we need to focus more closely on Martin Luther King’s advice about the urgency of transformational change (‘justice deferred is justice delayed’) than the longer term trajectory (‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice’). The history of human societies is full of game-changing and, in the end, remarkably rapid social and political events that few saw coming at the time. The abolition of slavery, the victories of the suffragettes, the defeat of Nazism, the end of apartheid and the fall of the Berlin Wall are all striking examples of the ways in which compelling ideas and courageous action can create the preconditions for sudden and dramatic transformational change.

‘History,’ Rebecca Solnit notes in her recent writing on the struggles and achievements of the climate justice movement, ‘is rarely linear. The cast of characters is never announced in advance, and the storylines are full of left turns, plot twists, about-faces, surprising crossroads and unintended consequences.’

Only a few years ago, the fossil fuel divestment movement and their strategies for driving a swift end to the fossil fuel era were routinely ridiculed by coal company executives and the Murdoch press. This laughter must be starting to sound very hollow. By December 2015, over five hundred large corporations and financial institutions (including iconic brands like Rockefeller, Allianz and ING) had announced global divestment commitments of over $3.4 trillion. On 6 November 2015, President Obama announced his decision not to proceed with the Keystone Pipeline. On 4 January 2016, China announced a three-year moratorium on opening any new coal mines. Gandhi must be looking down on developments like these with a wry smile, remembering what he once said about the campaign for Indian independence: ‘First they ignore us. Then they laugh at us. Then they fight us. Then we win.’ And of course, as Gandhi would also understand, none of this has happened by accident. These victories over the formidable power and resources of the fossil fuel industry and its allies are the direct result of the determination, ingenuity and solidarity of a rapidly expanding movement of citizens and scientists, investors and inventors, artists and activists.

THE NEXT GROUP of books I take down from my library veer from the historical to the philosophical – works by Albert Camus, Clive Hamilton and Terry Eagleton. Clive Hamilton’s 2010 essay ‘Why we resist the truth about climate change’ highlights the ongoing relevance of Camus’ The Plague to understanding the dynamics of climate change denial. The self delusional strategies employed by the citizens of Oran to avoid facing the fatal implications of the epidemic bare a striking resemblance to the ‘Australian strategy’ of sleepwalking over the climate cliff observed by Bruno Latour. Hamilton also usefully draws our attention to the tireless hard work demonstrated by Dr Rieux in caring for the sick and dying citizens of Oran. Rieux has no illusions about the gravity of the prognosis for his patients. But, no matter the odds, he remains steadfastly determined to continue his healing work. These qualities of ‘active fatalism’ and ‘pessimism of strength’ may, Hamilton suggests, be particularly relevant to those of us without religious faith in sustaining emotional resilience and compassionate commitment in a challenging climate.

The British literary critic and social theorist Terry Eagleton explores these questions further in his recent meditation on the desirability and possibility of Hope Without Optimism (Yale University Press, 2015). What qualities, asks Eagleton, can best enable us to gaze without blinking on our individual mortality – and perhaps also on the mortality of our civilisations and our species – while retaining the capacity for ethical and courageous action? Reflections on a diverse array of secular and religious responses to this question lead Eagleton to a range of possibilities: tenacity and persistence, patience and forbearance, trust and faith, resistance and rebellion. Dale Jamieson arrives at a different but arguably complementary set of ‘ethics for the antropocene’ in the conclusion to his provocatively titled book, Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed and What it Means for our Future (OUP, 2014): simplicity, mindfulness, temperance, co-operation and respect for nature. The resonance of these values with the teachings of the Buddha may help explain the surprising number of climate scientists, policy makers and activists who I find are increasingly drawn to Buddhist ideas and practice.

Socially engaged Buddhism has, in my experience, far more in common with the tough-minded, secular existentialism of Camus than it does with faith-based theologies. The Buddha, after all, was an enlightened human being and teacher, not a god. Thích Nht Hnh, Joanna Macey, Susan Murphy and other writers in this tradition draw on the foundational Buddhist teachings of impermanence, interdependence and compassion to inform their response to the personal and political challenges of climate change.

Thích Nht Hnh, Vietnamese Buddhist scholar, places strong emphasis on the importance of collective as well as individual insight and action. ‘If we continue abusing the Earth this way,’ he warns, ‘there is no doubt that our civilisation will be destroyed. This turnaround takes enlightenment, awakening. The Buddha attained individual awakening. Now we need a collective enlightenment to stop this course of destruction.’

Thoughtful understanding of the impermanence and interdependence of life on Earth helps us to fully appreciate the fragility and complexity of the ecological relationships that have enabled human civilisation to flourish. The Buddhist principle of compassion also reinforces the urgency of action to prevent key climate tipping points in order to minimise the suffering and damage from climatic trends already locked in.

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, in fact identified the teachings of Thích Nht Hnh as a crucial source of comfort and wisdom at times of personal doubt and crisis in her work leading up to the Paris climate summit. ‘This has been a six-year marathon with no rest in between,’ she reflected. ‘I just really needed something to buttress me, and I don’t think that I would have had the inner stamina, the depth of optimism, the depth of commitment, the depth of the inspiration if I had not been accompanied by the teachings of Thích Nht Hnh.’

BUDDHIST PERSPECTIVES ON the sources and implications of the global climate crisis are all reflected with remarkable synergies and power in the 2015 papal encyclical on climate change and inequality,
On Care for Our Common Home. There are a number of reasons, as Naomi Oreskes notes in her introduction to the Melville House publication of Laudato Si’, why this intervention by Pope Francis has the potential to have the same catalytic impact on the global climate change debate as Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1962) or Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) had on earlier debates about environmental protection and slavery. The encyclical begins by throwing the full intellectual and moral weight of the papacy behind the scientific case for urgent climate action: ‘The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.’

Importantly, Laudato Si’ also provides a powerful reaffirmation of the fundamental interconnectedness between human beings, all other living creatures and the earth we share. ‘Tyrannical anthropocentrism’ is firmly rejected in favour of ‘responsible stewardship’ for our common home. ‘We have to realise,’ Pope Francis argues, ‘that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.’

The encyclical’s sharp critique of unconstrained blind faith in the power of (‘deified’) markets, technology and economic growth as the key driver of climatic and ecological crisis opens up space for a far broader conversation about the shape of an alternative paradigm of ‘integrative ecology’. ‘To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem which comes up is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system… An authentic humanity, calling for a new synthesis, seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door.’

Faith in the divine wisdom and compassion of God is, understandably, at the centre of the Pope’s teachings about emotional and spiritual resilience. But there are also relevant and useful insights here for those of us outside the Christian faith. ‘We are speaking,’ Pope Francis says, ‘of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full.’

Pope Francis has consistently demonstrated his determination to broaden the dialogue about climate science and climate justice between faith and reason, church and state, business and civil society. Naomi Klein, Jeffrey Sachs, Joseph Stiglitz and John Schellnhuber are among those who may have found themselves somewhat surprised to be invited to the Vatican to contribute to this conversation.

John Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, concluded his 2014 presentation to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences on climate system tipping points with these observations: ‘…great transformational changes lie ahead of us in either case – whether we choose to pursue “business as usual” as long as possible or to adopt “sustainable development” as soon as necessary… Research, science and education will play a decisive role in making the right choice, not least by providing robust evidence about the risks and opportunities involved… This will require us, however, to also transform our thinking about the world. As Albert Einstein said, “problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.”’

I SUSPECT THE complexity of this challenge – of re-imagining the mindset and redrawing the maps that have led us down this darkening road – is the central reason why I find myself paying increasing attention to the ways in which writers, musicians, artists and poets are responding to the consequences and implications of climate change.

Successful completion of this journey will clearly require activists and map makers like Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything (Simon & Schuster, 2014), and Paul Mason, author of Post Capitalism (Allen Lane, 2015) – people who can help us imagine alternatives not only to unsustainable ecological practices but also to the assumed inevitability of unjust and oppressive power relationships. Websites like Beautiful Solutions, created by Klein’s team to crowdsource inspiring examples of alternative social and political practices, can help bring these maps to life.

The storytelling skills of science fiction and fantasy writers like Ursula Le Guin, Kim Stanley Robinson and Margaret Atwood can help us to visualise key turning points and tipping points, and to choose mindfully between the choices leading towards and away from dystopian futures.

Musicians like Patti Smith and her daughter Jesse Paris Smith, who organised the Pathways to Paris concerts, can assist in energising and inspiring climate movements as they did before and during the Paris climate summit. Indeed one of my own strongest memories from my time in Paris is of Patti Smith, Tom Yorke (Radiohead) and Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers) standing arm-in-arm with Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben and Vandanna Shiva on the stage of the Trianon Theatre, belting out the anthemic chorus of ‘People Have the Power’.

Actors like Leonardo DiCaprio can employ their eloquence and celebrity status to stand in front of the World Economic Forum and speak truth to power. ‘We simply cannot afford to let the corporate greed of the coal, oil and gas industries determine the future of humanity. Enough is enough. You know better. The world knows better. History will place the blame for this devastation squarely at their feet… Our planet cannot be saved unless we leave fossil fuels in the ground where they belong.’

Artists like Olafur Elliason can focus our attention on the beauty and the fragility of the world we are in danger of losing through works like the 2015 Ice Watch installation, in which Elliason towed Arctic icebergs to Paris for them to melt away in front of the Panthéon as the climate negotiations dragged on.

The Marshall Islands poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner also confronted many of us in Paris with a timely reminder that wishful thinking and despair are self-indulgent luxuries for peoples whose lives and livelihoods are already being inundated by the rising tide. Here are the final lines of the poem ‘Tell Them’, which Kathy read to climate change decision-makers and activists at the Paris climate summit:


tell them about the water

how we have seen it rising

flooding across our cemeteries

gushing over our sea walls

and crashing against our homes

tell them what it’s like

to see the entire ocean level with the land

tell them

we are afraid

tell them we don’t know

of the politics

or the science

but tell them we see

what’s in our own backyard

tell them some of us

are old fishermen who believe that God

made us a promise

tell them some of us

are a little bit more skeptical

but most importantly you tell them

that we don’t want to leave

we’ve never wanted to leave

and that we

are nothing without our islands.[2]


As we continue the climate justice journey on the road beyond Paris, I am keenly aware of the urgency and complexity of two key tasks: driving and accelerating the transition to a just and resilient zero-carbon future, and facing the hazards of an increasingly harsh climate with honesty, courage, creativity and compassion.

The proven capacity of human beings to respond to harsh circumstances with determination and resilience gives me the confidence to know that there will be many good companions on this journey. My understanding of the science about the speed and strength of the approaching storms tells me it may well be a rough ride.

I’d like therefore to conclude these reflections with some familiar but enduring wisdom from the patron saint of the church of ‘hope without optimism’, Leonard Cohen:


The birds they sang at the break of day

Start again I heard them say

Don’t dwell on what has passed away

or what is yet to be…


Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in…




[1] Latour, B. 'On some of the affects of capitalism’, Lecture given at the Royal Academy, Copenhagen, 26 February, 2014.

[2] The poet has requested that ‘Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner and Iep Jeltok with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.’

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