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Climate Action Dialogue: From Linear to Fractal

Published onOct 26, 2023
Climate Action Dialogue: From Linear to Fractal

In this dialogue between United Nations COP26 Climate Change High-Level Champion Nigel Topping and Farhana Yamin, lawyer and climate justice activist, we discuss the past and future of climate politics, the ethical and economic aspects of climate justice, and the role that history and memory play in envisioning climate futures.

Ed Finn (EF): To start off this conversation, I’m interested to hear your thoughts about our broader, collective imagination around climate action and climate futures. How do we motivate large-scale change? The climate crisis is a problem that exists on so many different levels, and it unfolds in ways that are difficult for us to perceive, until all of a sudden the floodwaters are rising—and even then it’s a local crisis, which we have to connect to a global phenomenon that looks different in each place. How do we balance globally coordinated climate action with the paradoxical fact that much of the real climate action needs to happen in specific local and regional contexts?

Farhana Yamin (FY): Three years ago, I decided to divide my work and activism into thirds: one-third going into the UN COPs, these big summits, where I’d spent most of my thirty years as a lawyer and advisor, one-third into creativity and imagination work, and another third into action at the community level. Community is the new COP—unless you ground all of these big imperatives, scientific processes, behavior change, and economics in the local, it’s all very unstable. I think that was our big mistake as international climate advocates: to feel like we could universalize. The science came very much from the physicists and the meteorologists, and the climate models were too abstract, too big, too difficult to connect with the everyday.

Implementing climate action in your High Street or village is easier than trying to imagine what the entire world will look like. And the arts, heritage, and cultural sectors have a key role to play, and many tools and interventions to help us imagine the next steps, from storytelling to poetry to happenings to community theatre. We have more opportunities to tap into our creative imaginations than the UN summits allow.

Nigel Topping (NT): If you frame the question as between global and local, there are tensions. But I don’t. I think we need a much more fractal approach to activate society at every level.

We need bottom-up grassroots, but we also need middle-out—cities and states are really important, and during the Trump administration in the U.S., it was the climate action of cities, states, and businesses that kept hope alive, and we’ve seen similar patterns recently in Australia and Brazil. Everything is connected, and I think there is still a tendency to overemphasize the negotiations at the UN COP summits. Even during a COP, there is so much more going on than the negotiations, and a lot of media organizations and civil-society groups overfocus on the negotiations rather than the broader dynamics. I think people often want to identify one person to be responsible for solving the problem, but it’s much messier than that.

Movements can get stuck in a framing that is no longer helpful, and I think we’re stuck in this framing that is excessively focused on the formal COP negotiations—the framing of 1992 [the year of the “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro, which established the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)]. The world’s very different now—for instance, South Korea is no longer a developing country. Similarly, we can get stuck in a scientific framing, whereas science only helps us to understand the problem. To understand the solutions we need farmers and engineers, and people like Sheela Patel [founder of Slum Dwellers International and founder/director of the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers], who is coordinating women-led, grassroots informal settlement movements. Farmers, engineers, and people leading informal settlements have to solve practical problems that are being thrown at them now by climate change. If you’re a scientist, you don’t have to solve those problems on a day-to-day basis. The science is super important in terms of context, but it’s abstract. To my mind, the science and the negotiations have done their job. There is still, of course, a need for more scientific research and further negotiations. But if we put ninety percent of our attention into those categories, we will not break through the crisis. Kim Stanley Robinson often talks about this in terms of a shift in the structure of feeling, which to me is about increasing the sensitivity of the broader global society to the problems and the solution pathways, rather than focusing only on the politicians and scientists. 

Every solution has to be grounded in a place, whether it’s manufacturing batteries or growing vegetables, and there is a physicality to these processes, in contrast to the abstraction of international agreements and scientific findings. Climate action requires people to imagine something different before they do something different. And I think this overemphasis on science and the global geopolitics can block out imagination and uncertainty, and we need to be able to navigate a much messier way forward than any simple narrative can do justice to.

FY: Western science tends to separate mind and body, nature and nurture, and break down our interconnected universe into silos and building blocks. We’re now learning that is not how reality really works. What Nigel said was beautiful, and I am drawn also to seeing the world in a fractal way.

NT: It’s all based on old mathematics, the underpinning of nineteenth-century physics. Mathematics and economics have moved on, but power structures are still using old models.

FY: Yes, they are using old models, and the fractal-based way of looking at the world is only now starting to push through. We’re at a moment where the epistemological formation of a different kind of thinking is happening, through a variety of social movements.

My twenty-year-old is studying politics and philosophy, and he has me reading this book, A Fractal Epistemology for a Scientific Psychology: Bridging the Personal with the Transpersonal, which captures a trend in what we might call the new science: being more consistent with, kinder to, and respectful of traditional cultures, which always had the understanding that everything is connected, that we are part of nature, that the universe is full of magic and mystery and joy in ways that are circular and fractal, essentially. Change-making happens at every level, and it isn’t reducible to one moment, or one set of leaders, or a single-hero story. So that gives me a great deal of hope, and also helps me because I am a theory nerd, and I think at the end of the day, there is nothing more practical than theory.

A new way of thinking is needed for us to re-ground ourselves, to be more place-based. As a result of COVID sending this massive shock wave through the global civil society and economy, we’ve rediscovered the need to be more connected with our communities, questioning the notion that we need to be rushing around all over the globe.

EF: This discussion of epistemology and framing leads naturally into what I’d hoped to talk about next, which is about how we can perform a different relationship with the future. We have to model this different mindset, and model the different kinds of stories we can tell about the future, if we want that mode of thinking to be more prevalent. So, what are some of your favorite examples of local efforts for climate action that perform a different kind of relationship with the future?

NT: Consistent with my last answer, I think it’s these fractal dynamics. In fact, I’ve just been speaking to the CEO of Mercedes-Benz, who I’ve been working with for about five years. Their firm went from being skeptical of coming European Union regulations to commit to reaching net zero by 2039, and to their fleet being 100 percent electric by 2030. But this is not a story of a hero leader or a hero company. What changed their mind was evidence of lots of other companies committing to electrify their vehicle fleets because of the work of The Climate Group, a nongovernmental organization, and the work of individual mayors and their teams in cities like London and Paris who started creating low-emission zones, creating markets for electric vehicles. Plus the evidence that something very different was going on in the biggest market in the world [editors’ note: In 2021, the Chinese government mandated that electric vehicles make up forty percent of all sales for each automaker doing business in the country by 2030, and the government has extended tax exemptions and reductions for electric-vehicles purchases]. Five or six years ago, experts were pinpointing 2070 as the date for the world moving away from the internal combustion engine, and quickly we’ve shifted to arguing whether it’s 2030 or 2040.

Another favorite example is Sheela Patel’s campaign Roof Over Our Heads, which is a project to provide decent accommodation for all of the 1 billion people living in informal settlements worldwide. The thing I love is that it’s a very collaborative effort. She’s pursuing partnerships with major organizations like the Global Covenant of Mayors, but the project is very grassroots: it’s largely women-led informal settlements groups saying, We’re not going to wait for all the neat solutions, the top-down solutions, like massive new housing programs or solving the land tenure problem. If we wait for those, we have no agency. What we know is what will work in our community now, with materials and skills that are available. But we need help scaling it up. We need help from digital experts to help produce maps of our communities. We need help from local governments, from building-materials companies. But it’s a flipping of the frame. It’s still fractal in the sense that they are not going to do all of this work by themselves, but they are taking their power and asking for help and collaboration, not charity. And they already have labs in about ten cities where people are improving the quality of their dwellings in the face of flooding and extreme heat in ways that are appropriate to their circumstances, without waiting for some kind of massive top-down solution to materialize. It’s about thinking very big and very systematically, but not starting from the usual assumptions about power relationships.

FY: It’s critical to remove the systematic injustices that lead to certain people, and even some scales of action, being ignored as not interesting, not important. Typically, local-scale and community-level action is seen as small in the sense of being unimportant, as opposed to being understood as immediate and directly affecting people. So we privilege national politics over local politics, international politics over national. Instead of seeing the world in the fractal way we’ve been discussing, where change-making is happening at every level, the people who are best qualified and most interested and excited—often Black, brown, Indigenous people, women, who are not seen as capable of leadership at these “higher” levels—are sometimes dismissed as being parochial, without a larger vision. What’s giving me hope is all of the learning going on to challenge that.

The mad idea I’m working on now is to get a billion dollars of funding to local groups or activists around the world, who are currently doing the work in their own communities, and who are only asking for five thousand or ten thousand, or less, to support their efforts. In 2019, one of the biggest student movements was led by a young man, David Wicker, who is Italian and was fourteen or fifteen years old at the time. He was part of Fridays for Future Italy, who were turning out five hundred thousand, seven hundred thousand people regularly. We asked, Well, how did this happen? How did you do this? It was literally ten young people on a WhatsApp group that started it all. Fridays for Future Italy didn’t have much funding, and when I met David at a meeting where several other funders were present we asked, how can we help you? They were organizing another mass meeting. And they said, Well, we just need five hundred euros to hire a sound system for our next big meeting. We thought they’d asked for five hundred thousand! Sometimes modest sums of money make can make a massive difference.

So, what’s giving me hope is dismantling the mindset of dismissing huge numbers of people who are leaders just because they are working within their own communities and among their peers. The global discussion on climate has been dominated by men and economic or scientific models. If you wanted to be taken seriously, you had to be a man, and even better if you had an energy or emissions model. The movement for equality, diversity, and inclusion is an absolutely pivotal one, and I regard it as far more important than solutions offered by models. Dismantling existing power structures, and allowing billions of people to see themselves as change-makers, is rarely a solution suggested by models.

There’s a little part of me that is disillusioned and realizes that I was a bit naïve, frankly, thinking that political systems and parties would change things. They haven’t, and they are still not making change at the speed that we need.

EF: Is there a collective global imagination about the climate crisis, and climate action? And with all of the changes we’ve been discussing thus far, is that collective imagination something that is changing over time?

NT: It’s interesting to look back just ten years, which, when you’re working on this every day, seems like quite a long time, right, Farhana? But if you think about the civilizational redesign project that navigating the climate crisis truly is, ten years is a very short time. I don’t remember when Farhana and I first had a conversation about net zero, but I’m sure I would have been skeptical about the idea in 2013. Then, within a few years, I was leading campaigns to get to net zero. So there’s always a sense of imagination about what’s possible, and it’s usually owned and created by dominant structures. Given the immense power imbalances, it’s important to pay attention to anything which challenges them, whether it’s an example of a city or a grassroots organization doing something, or a story, fictional or nonfictional.

The imaginative barrier that I’m most obsessed by now is our inability to understand that things can change in a radically nonlinear way. This goes back to the mathematics, shifting toward a complexity approach, thinking in terms of nonlinear dynamics rather than linear incrementalism. About a decade ago, I read a series of climate scenarios published by a major global consulting firm. It was pretty good work, using carbon pricing as a proxy for economic signals. But sometimes you have to read the footnotes of reports to understand what the deep framing is, and I remember a footnote explaining that the carbon pricing trajectories for these scenarios were all derived from the best available integrated assessment models, but that readers should take note that these do not model entrepreneurship or politics well. So I’m reading this thinking, well, leaving aside the two things that really drive systems change, this is a great basis for a report. So, it’s not that all governments or businesses are incapable, but that if we rely on only one sort of thinking, one perspective, that’s suboptimal. The basic principle of all sorts of evolutionary paradigms is that you embrace diversity because you learn and reward success, and then you learn faster.

I encountered another interesting aspect of climate imagination over the past few years when I was in my role as the UN Climate Change High-Level Champion, and I started talking about it as a sort of moral authority 2.0. At the Paris climate summit in 2015, there was a campaign, 1.5 To Stay Alive, led by AOSIS and the Climate Vulnerable Forum countries. They very loudly made a kind of reparations argument, You owe us a hundred billion. I would describe this approach as moral authority 1.0: you caused it, we didn’t, you need to fix it. Moral authority 2.0 says, that’s still true, there is victimhood here. But I remember the foreign minister of one of the Caribbean islands standing up during a meeting and saying, Although we are victims, we will not lead with our victimhood. Instead, we will lead with determination, urgency, innovation, their willingness to collaborate. All of that historical record stands, and we won’t let you off the hook, but we won’t get stuck there. If you get stuck, there’s no agency.

One of the things I worry about is that when the narrative is only about science, it tends to be doom and gloom, and when it focuses on historical power imbalances, it gets rather legalistic. But neither will necessarily lead you to agency. I think it’s really important to have a broader narrative around how we can, at various scales, seek pathways to be part of a solution.

FY: I think you’re wrong, basically. I think that the reparative lens isn’t about blaming or leading with victimhood. It’s about understanding repair and harm, and returning agency to people in a way that is truthful and has integrity. It’s liberating to me to say to white men: your ancestors caused a lot of damage to my country, Pakistan. Somewhere in the past there was a huge amount of damage done which has an ongoing set of legacies that are very alive, and are leading to systematic inequalities in the here and now. And it is not taking refuge in victimhood to point that out that the past still deeply shapes the present.

In October 2013, I wrote the first-ever paper suggesting the goal of net zero emissions be included in the Paris Agreement [editors’ note: the Paris Agreement was adopted two years later, in late 2015]. I remember talking with Todd Stern, who was the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change [editors’ note: Stern was the U.S.’s chief negotiator for the Paris agreement], and he said, I love this idea, but you’re going to have to go and get some really convincing people on board first. Every person he mentioned was a man. He really valued me and cared for me, and really rated me. But in the end, I had to go and get lots of white men to say this was a great idea. In fact, I ended up getting loads of women to support net zero, and this is a story of a group of women friends and allies I convened called “the lionesses,” but that story is for another day.

I’m saying all this now partly because I feel a sense of accomplishment, but partly to emphasize who the change-makers are. They are very diverse in voice, in body, in language, in geography. Net zero ended up in the Paris Agreement as a result of hundreds, if not thousands, of people actually taking the idea on board and running with it. Those people represent a model for collective agency that we currently don’t describe well.

What are the stories we tell ourselves about climate? In the dominant story, climate change is a problem about gasses. It’s mainly caused by the energy sector. It’s going to get fixed mainly by markets and new technologies, and by the retrofitting of certain sectors to reduce carbon emissions. In this story, we don’t look at the underlying desires and motivations, the ways we define space and buildings and land use, and the inequalities built into who consumes most of the products that lead to most of the emissions. We’ve never looked at those factors properly, and I admire the people who are helping to change the story we’re telling to focus more on these parts of the crisis.

Right now we have incredible climate solutions on the table, and mostly they are redistributive and involve rejecting how the global economy has evolved to this point. So I think this desire for fairness is not being taken into account by the IAMs [editors’ note: Integrated Assessment Models, used by the UNFCCC “to provide policy-relevant insights into global environmental change and sustainable development issues by providing a quantitative description of key processes in the human and earth systems and their interactions”1], which still dominate the global conversation and continue to say, Action is too expensive. Let’s defer it for a while longer. The redistributive actions, which are reparative in nature, are the best set of solutions right now, and we need to make those the mainstay of climate action and global climate discourse.

EF: Farhana, that speaks to the heart of this Climate Imagination project for us: building imaginative capacity. Far too few people in the world feel empowered and invited to imagine the future. There are powerful structures of imagination that are in place to reinscribe the status quo, and it’s difficult to imagine alternatives.

I’d like to close this conversation by asking both of you to reflect on the role of hope and positivity in climate action. How can we balance that crucial interplay between aspiration and alarm? How can we invite people to imagine positive climate futures that also attend to the past, as we’ve been discussing?

FY: For me, anything that is binary is wrong. And that’s one of the reasons I’ve resisted the call to optimism, because whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist, that’s a clear binary box for you to fit into. Likewise hope or hopelessness. People are complex creatures—I feel both of those things every hour. One of the ways we can change is to start recognizing that we’re complicated beings, and we have all of these emotions, and to honor and value and accept them.

The newer climate movements are healthier in terms of allowing people to bring their full emotional selves, and therefore their full energies, and therefore their full solutions on board. There are accountability strategies that allow you to go after those who prevented climate action knowingly, spending vast amounts of money. So sometimes I feel like, yes, I’ll let my vengeful self unleash as a lawyer. There’s that vengeful and angry, Simon Weisenthal [editors’ note: the Jewish Austrian Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter who assisted in bringing several Nazi war criminals to trial] person who wants to hold those people who are responsible for what is going to be ecocide and genocide in huge amounts—and it’s already happening around us today. Let the discourse around that happen. Don’t say to those people, Oh, go and be optimistic and come back with a market-based solution that allows us to buy credits. No way. Let’s just allow all of this larger range of solutions to really be there, to be considered. Again, I think the movements that are emerging now have a healthier DNA in allowing people to start from where they are, use the tools that they have, use the solutions that they’re putting forward without instantly dismissing them as bad, inconsistent, unsafe, or not workable.

I think a lot of learning is coming from two different movements that climate people have not generally seen as a source of inspiration. One is the disability rights movement, advancing that understanding that our abilities are on a spectrum, and it’s not either-or. It’s largely the institutional structures around you that make you disabled, unable to participate. The second is the trans rights movement, because again they’re redefining what we have thought of as a binary, blowing apart fundamental categories. You can apply this kind of non-binary thinking to the idea of questioning who is a national and who is a migrant, for instance. We need to unlearn what is toxic, consider what we have been socialized to think is a given fact that cannot be changed, when in fact it is possible to change these definitions, and they’re changing all around us now. So that gives me a lot of hope and courage, every day.

NT: I very much agree with Farhana. If anybody preaches all hope or all doom, it’s unhelpful. There are voices right now saying, Don’t worry, kids. The market will take care of things, and others saying, We’re fucked, might as well get used to those three degrees of warming. Neither is helpful, because there is no agency in either of those stories.

In my journey of more and more realizing the importance of the imagination, I learned from reading Kim Stanley Robinson this idea of critical utopias. We use this idea of utopia to mean a perfect future, but it’s just not believable. And we’re not going to see a global revolution where everyone is suddenly nice to each other. Instead, we’re moving forward with the idea of a future which is still messy, but better. Charting a pathway to that future which is believable is really quite important. In that process, imagination is crucial because if we ignore the messiness of the pathway, or rule out the messiness of the solution, this better-but-not-perfect future, and we just simplify it and clean it up, then people won’t be inspired by it, because there won’t be anything left there to engage with.

I’m really excited about the fact that the imaginative arts are on the scene in the climate movement now. I don’t think they were at all just five years ago. But there’s a lot of mobilization, and that gives me hope that there’s a shift in the culture—in the structure of feeling, to borrow Robinson’s phrase again—because those are the forms of expression which inform that much subtler, deeper sense of what is possible, moreso than the necessary-but-insufficient graphs and models that we’ve been talking about.

FY: We need better stories about ourselves, including how we got here. Nigel often talks about critical utopias or imagining the future, while for most of the work that I do, I always say, Root yourself in the past and how we got here. That’s the lens of climate justice and injustice. If you don’t realize how we got here, and why things got so bad, you will tend to replicate existing injustices. The lens of what we call the just transition is to create the future by looking at the systemic inequalities from our past, and then try to reshape them to the best of our ability, and bring to the table everybody who was excluded, or not heard.

A significant development for COP27 [in 2022, in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt] is that it was the first time that ministers of culture met at a COP. When Nigel and I started, at the first COP, it was environment ministers only. And then gradually we started adding in the ministries of finance, and economic and energy ministers turned up, and now we’ve got cultural ministers coming and recognizing we need the full weight of our imagination, which is often largely in the creative arts and heritage, which form the bedrock of our subconscious values. We can’t do anything fundamental to change things unless we now reexamine and revise some of those values. I’m very excited about this shift to working at the level of values, whereas before we were just trying to tinker with a policy here, or a program there, or a bit of funding here, a few fiscal reforms here and there. Over thirty years we’ve finally got down to the root of the problem. Changing values allows us to see things moving differently, and to reshape our relationships. And that is even more precious and fundamental than very well-calibrated models. Those are important tools too, but you’ll only care about what the models reveal if you care about other people in the first place, and if you care about your environment in the first place.

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