After 11 days of sleeping no more than three hours a night during the Paris Climate negotiations last December, I was more exhausted than I’d ever been, mentally, physically, and emotionally. While running between meetings and events and press conferences, I accidentally walked into an event hosted by a tech company. The speaker claimed to have the solution to climate change. This process he explained, “involves using filters, chemical reactions, and other special materials to collect greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide” from the atmosphere.
The speaker followed the same template the United Nations often uses, viewing greenhouse gases as the only problem. This mindset isolates the direct causes of climate change and does not address the broader systemic problems that allow climate change to exist in the first place. It uses CO2 emissions as the agreed upon value, the number to minimize, and the metric upon which to base policy. It makes decisions by the numbers.
Doing this creates three problems: The unmeasurable and the qualitative are devalued; the metric applied perpetuates existing biases and power relationships; and it promotes the illusion of predictability and control that obscures the likelihood of unintended consequences.
This approach sits comfortably in our culture, which tries to solve problems by isolating the direct causes of issues rather than addressing the broader systemic problems that allow these problems to exist in the first place. As the war on crime, the war on drugs, and the war on terror demonstrate, causation is seldom linear. Crime, drugs, and terrorism are symptoms of deeper, systemic disharmony and addressing their direct causes in isolation cannot and will not be successful.
Climate change is like this too.
On December 12, 2015, the final day of the Paris Climate talks, I decided not to head to the Le Bourget Conference Center, where the negotiations were taking place, but rather, to attend the D12 climate march in Paris. Thousands of people from all over the world flooded the city streets to demonstrate that no matter what heads of state decided, we would continue organizing for climate justice. At that moment, I felt as if we were finally a big, beautiful, unified movement.
I was filled with enormous hope as the much-awaited final agreement draft was released. Surrounded by cameras, police, and chanting marchers, I read through the draft on my smartphone. My feelings of hope quickly turned to despair as I read more and more of the text. Though it mentioned the importance of keeping global warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius, the limited commitments from countries still added up to well over 3 degrees of warming.
I spent most of my time in Paris like this: oscillating between excessive hope and deep despair, feeling simultaneously more disempowered and empowered than I’d ever felt in my entire life.
The way we’ve dealt with climate change in these international negotiating spaces emphasizes the global over the local, the distant over the immediate, the measurable over the qualitative. This oversight is part of the same mentality that is at the root of the climate crisis to begin with. It is the mentality that sacrifices what is precious, sacred, and immediate for a distant end. It is the mentality of instrumentalism that values other beings and the Earth itself in terms of their utility. It is the hubris of believing we can predict and control the consequences of our actions.
Climate change is multifactorial; it cannot be addressed by linear strategies for reducing CO2 emissions. I am not arguing that we shouldn’t work to reduce direct emissions, but rather that technological approaches on their own cannot solve the problem. The problem lies in our relationship with each other and the Earth. Climate change is simply a symptom of this relationship.
This is why I focus my activism on fossil fuel divestment. Never in the 22 years of international climate negotiations has there been a single proposal to limit fossil fuel production. This is a testament to the current narrative around climate change, which sees climate as an issue of regulating and trading greenhouse gases. Divestment aims to reframe the climate narrative as a moral problem. In normal politics, efforts like these – that sacrifice what is sacred for a distant end – are a sad but necessary price of doing business. In a moral crisis, they’re intolerable.
Karina Gonzalez is a student leader of Fossil Free North Arizona University, and a 2016 Brower Youth Award Winner.