Kennedy Graham

Earth’s climate … and the matter of the human spirit

by Kennedy Graham

There is something surreal to the climate epic that is beginning to define the fate of the planet – and the human species with it.

This was portrayed last week in the muted diplomatic exchanges that echoed along the corridors in Yokohama, marking the adoption of the IPCC’s Working Group II’s 5th Assessment Report on the impact of climate change during the 21st century.

That’s the 21st century in the Year of Our Lord – the 21st century of the Christian calendar.  It is, after all, the Christian world that ushered in the emphasis on material growth of the global economy over the past two centuries, including its neo-liberal evolution from classical thought over the past two decades.

It is symptomatic of the climate debate that its impact on human society in the future – the driving force, the dynamics, the outcome – is assessed and expressed almost totally in economic terms.  The rationale for and against short-term mitigation, medium-term adaptation, long-term generational equity, is all expressed in the context of GDP and other monetary indices.

Hardly a thought is given in official circles to the emotional dimension of facing the next generation as it scrambles for the physical security of their children, twenty years from now.

Nor to the psychological effect on humanity of far-reaching climate distortion to the planet we inhabit.

Nor to the existential angst of recognising that we, as a species, are altering the terrestrial habitat we share with all other life-forms, to our collective detriment.

The fate of the climate is, above all else, a consequence of human values – an issue affecting, and being affected by, the human spirit.

The ancient biblical injunction was to go forth and multiply, replenish and subdue the earth, and have dominion over every living thing. The Koran, a millennium later, updated things – depicting humans as vice-regents of Earth with a custodial responsibility. Eastern philosophies draw from human serenity and individual harmony with Nature – from the ancient Tao through to contemporary yogic belief.

Yet independent of our religious roots, modern nation-states of every civilizational hue are generally busy degrading their piece of the planet.

Every civilizational background, that is, except maybe for animism, which preceded all major religions, infusing indigenous peoples with a respect for, and recognition of immanence within, our natural surroundings.

Thus, at Yokohama, the touch of surrealism that seeped through the professional exchange.  See what was discussed.

The UNEP Executive Director stressed that the latest IPCC report would help people understand climate change, informing them on the prospects and risks that lie ahead.  The message needed to be made ‘loud and clear to the world’.  The UNFCCC Executive Secretary said the report shone a light on what the world needs to do to face the climate change challenge with ‘solutions based on sound science’. It would ‘underscore why immediate action is needed’, and would provide a global picture of integrated action across regions.

So much for UN officialdom and science; what of the subjective national perceptions of the impact report?

The perceptions reflected diverse worldviews.  Some delegations urged that the group should take a ‘cosmo-centric’ rather than an anthropocentric approach and include reference to the vulnerability and exposure of Mother Earth.   They argued that Mother Earth was a ‘universal UN concept’. It should therefore be included in the Summary for Policymakers.

But others opposed such reference to ‘Mother Earth’.  An expert suggested that the existing reference to ‘impacts on interlinked human and natural systems’ might suffice. The Co-Chair noted that certain aspects of the report already encompassed ‘values and world-views’ that included the concept of Mother Earth.  And he pointed out that the report could not, in any event, go beyond the concepts in the literature it reviews.

So, participants decided not to adopt the proposed amendments.

There is, it is clear, a spiritual dimension to the gathering epic of the fate of Earth’s climate. It forms a backdrop to the diplomatic niceties, like shadows on Plato’s cave wall.  With the shadows flickering behind, some 195 national delegations argue over phrases as the planet heats up.

So the question remains: is humanity striving to stabilise Earth’s climate for anthropocentric or ‘cosmo-centric, or at the least, eco-centric, reasons?

The answer may unlock the key, as time passes, to official global climate policy.

For if we cannot agree on the fundamental issue underlying it all – what we are striving for and why – then we cannot expect to have the philosophical foundation, and thus the political substratum, for a genuine global solution to the ultimate global problem.

It will, in the ultimate, be about the human spirit – our perception of the cosmos, and ourselves here on Earth.