Soul Topics

Behind Economics-based Climate Change Mitigation Approaches: Contesting Instrumentalist Environmental Valuations

Mitigating climate change necessitates a multi-scalar effort. Global recognition of climate change has produced state-centred responses, relying on countries to reduce greenhouse emissions. However, examining Singapore’s (economics-based) measures to mitigate climate change does not inspire confidence. Singapore’s climate change commitments are weakened by the avoidance of a hard emissions cap (with the preference of an intensity-based approach) (Mock, 2019); this means carbon emission levels are predicated upon economic growth – emissions may increase with growth despite stated aims of peaking emissions by 2030. Furthermore, Singapore’s carbon tax is low by the World Bank’s estimates of carbon price necessary to meet the Paris Agreement’s targets (ibid.).

 

However, limiting the global average temperature increase to 1.5 degree Celsius entails “‘unprecedented’ transitions in all aspects of society” (Mead, 2018); climate change mitigation requires diverse and multi-scalar societal transformations. Clearly, inadequate economics-based mitigation paradigms of state actors reflect “the prevailing notion that the market acts as an efficient and equitable distributor of resources” (Okereke, 2010: 471), the priorities and politics of state actors – legitimizing economics-based solutions – limit the transformative scope of their interventions.

 

In Singapore, growth-centric priorities have led to instrumentalist valuations of the environment (Neo, 2007). Utilizing the environment as an instrument for economic growth, the state legitimizes economics-based measures for climate change mitigation – mitigation must occur without compromising growth. This is evident through Singapore’s technocratic ‘accomplishments’ in urban planning that support economic growth whilst claiming to benefit the environment (Neo, 2010), thereby advancing a ‘greener’ global city façade through environmental infrastructure and technology such as ‘green’ buildings. Thus, it could be argued that the politics of the state ‘fixes’ technocratic solutions to climate change that fail to contest deeper systemic root issues; systems of environmental exploitation for capitalist gains persist.

 

Fundamentally, instrumentalist valuations of the environment are inadequate, legitimizing growth-centric solutions rather than transformative ones. This posits the question: Can instrumentalist environmental valuations – predominantly advanced by top-down institutional governance – be contested (and redefined) by ordinary individuals of lower agency besides nation-states and corporations)?

 

 

Alternative Political Spaces: Foregrounding Nature’s Intrinsic Values

Perhaps, one way to reshape environmental valuations is through foregrounding nature’s intrinsic values in a capitalist world that exploits it instrumentally. Figure 1 shows screenshots of a video that illustrates how nature impacts an individual, who is systemically entrapped in a world characterized by a nature-society dichotomy. It depicts Katabasis (an ancient Greek concept), which represents a journey into one’s essence, whereby nature helps to bring one closer towards his/her fundamentals, unpolluted by the socially constructed, man-made world.

Katabasis | Walking With Nature
Figure 1: Katabasis and ‘walking with nature’ [Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JxTuI7bSaa8%5D

At the beginning of the video, a prevailing nature-society dichotomy is illustrated, as the man leaves his office work environment in order to enter nature in search of his fundamentals. Then, nature is depicted as vast, possessing a rich essence and significant intrinsic qualities. It surrounds the individual man as he does a movement meditation, entering a peaceful state. At the end, the sounds of the man’s footsteps merge with those of the winds and surrounding nature, and the echoes continue after the screen blacks out. This merging, characterized by non-separateness and the arbitrariness thereof, implies that nature and mankind are mutually reinforcing and ‘walking together’. The point is that ‘walking with nature’ can help ease the discontent of our lives, which are governed by systems that anthropocentrically exploit nature and create a dichotomous separation.

 

Arguably, as climate change intensifies environmental degradation and social problems, more content like this video may be produced by individuals/groups, serving as (bottom-up) responses that remind society of the intrinsic values of the environment. While this video is not framed in the context of climate change, it represents alternative platforms where intrinsic environmental valuations can nonetheless be highlighted. In contrast with top-down state politics that ‘fixes’ economics-based solutions to climate change, these platforms represent alternative political spaces that can destabilize predominantly instrumentalist environmental valuations determined by elite and capitalist institutions.

 

Besides, reconstructing environmental valuations without referencing climate change – and effectively linking these valuations to human well-being – allows surpassing of mitigation barriers surrounding climate change politics, such as climate change skepticism. A conventional and undeniably important response to skepticism is effective communication backed by the physical sciences, but such success can be ultimately limited to citizens who “[do not] already have a strong [political] opinion on the issue” (Kauffman, 2016). Instead, a plurality of alternative platforms advancing appreciation and intrinsic valuations of nature could more universally appeal (even to sceptics and elite institutions), potentially uprooting anthropocentric valuations entrenched in the mechanics of most unsustainable societal systems that reproduce climate change.

 

 

A Scalar Perspective to Contesting Instrumentalist Environmental Valuations

As climate change is reproduced globally through multiple scales, a scalar perspective to contesting instrumentalist environmental valuations can enhance the efficacy of mitigating climate change. This poses questions of increasing the scales, agencies and diversities of actors involved. Particularly, marginalized actors must be humanized and re-presented as agents of change.

 

Extreme weather events render many homelands uninhabitable (Davoudi, 2014). As ‘climate refugees’ increasingly seek shelter across international frontiers, this has led to the scalar (re)production of climate refugees and their ‘dystopian’ environments as ‘threats’ to sovereign states (Dalby, 2013); violent responses – such as interventionist practices of territorial dispossession – by states have resulted (ibid.). Rather than offering stern commitments of radical/immediate greenhouse gas reductions, instrumentalist representations of environmental problems as ‘risk’ externalizes climate change and shifts the blame, absolving larger polluting nations of responsibility while “entrench[ing] climate refugees as the truth about effects of sea level rise on small islands” (Farbotko and Lazrus, 2012: 383).

 

Thus, to offer alternatives to economics-based, growth-centric climate change mitigation from a scalar perspective, the lived narratives (and voices) of marginalized groups (e.g. climate refugees) must contribute to a multi-scalar effort at contesting instrumentalist environmental valuations. Within the United Nations system, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) functions primarily as an ad hoc lobby and negotiating voice for low-lying developing coastal states. They contest the label of ‘climate refugees’ (McNamara and Gibson, 2009), by highlighting that the islanders want to be recognized as citizens of sovereign and independent nations – despite being fictionalized as victims, they are not weaker nations that easily succumb to the actions of larger, polluting nations. These lived narratives serve to relocate the problem of climate change in the carbon emissions of larger, polluting nations, producing trans-border alliances that enroll even more actors to join in their fight (such as 350.org).

 

After all as climate change intensifies, even if the world “gradually shift[s] away from its reliance on fossil fuels as stronger climate policies come into force” (Mock, 2019), low-lying and vulnerable nations cannot passively await economic-based paradigms of climate change mitigation to save the day. As a low-lying nation-state itself, it is interesting to observe Singapore’s responses, from its climate policies and civil society in years to come. Fortunately, the possibilities of reconstructing environmental valuations are situated in the mundane and everyday realm, where open discussions of societal values in relation to the environment can occur from the ground-up.

 

 

References

Dalby, S. (2013). Biopolitics and Climate Security in the Anthropocene. Geoforum, 49, 184-192.

 

Davoudi, S. (2014). Climate change, securitisation of nature, and resilient urbanism. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy, 32(2), 360-375.

 

Farbotko, C., & Lazrus, H. (2012). The First Climate Refugees? Contesting Global Narratives of Climate Change in Tuvalu. Global Environmental Change, 22(2), 382-390.

 

Kauffman, G. (2016). Are Celebrities Helping or Hurting the Climate Change Conversation? The Christian Science Monitor. Available at: https://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/2016/1004/Are-celebrities-helping-or-hurting-the-climate-change-conversation [Accessed April 10, 2019].

 

McNamara, K.E. & Gibson, C. (2009). ‘We do not want to leave our land’: Pacific ambassadors at the United Nations resist the category of ‘climate refugees’. Geoforum, 40, 475-483.

 

Mead, L. (2018). IPCC Special Report: Limiting Global Warming to 1.5°C Will Require “Unprecedented” Transitions. SDG Knowledge Hub. Available at: https://sdg.iisd.org/news/ipcc-special-report-limiting-global-warming-to-1-5c-will-require-unprecedented-transitions/ [Accessed April 10, 2019].

 

Mock, A. (2019). Climate Change Mitigation in Singapore: Lessons From an Urbanized Island Nation. Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung South East Asia. Available at: http://th.boell.org/en/2019/03/27/climate-change-mitigation-singapore-lessons-urbanized-island-nation [Accessed April 10, 2019].

 

Neo, H. (2007). Challenging the developmental state: Nature conservation in Singapore. Asia Pacific Viewpoint, 48(2), 186-199.

 

Neo, H. (2010). The Potential of Large-Scale Urban Waste Recycling: A Case Study of the National Recycling Programme in Singapore. Society and Natural Resources, 23(9), 872-887.

 

Okereke, Chukwumerije. (2010). Climate Justice and the International Regime. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 1(3), 462-474.

 

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