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Climate Change is not a Problem

Dr Norah Campbell and Dr Gerard McHugh, Trinity Business School, explain the rhetoric behind this statement which is the title of their recent research paper.

Let's cut to the chase; climate change is a massive problem. It is a problem that threatens the survival of our planet and all that lives on it. And yet, in 2018, we chose to title our article in Organization Studies, 'Climate change is not a Problem'. We were, of course, being rhetorical - if you hope to incite readers to change fundamentally the way that they think about an existential issue - then bombast is not out of place.

There is, however, a more serious point to be made: thinking of climate change as a 'problem' has not gotten us very far. Once you define something as a 'problem' it is very quickly categorized into particular problem class, which in turn calls upon a particular modes of formulation, articulation, and manipulation, leading in due course to a particular solution set, or not. This is no more than stating the obvious about how humans reason.  

Organisational Threat

We make a much bolder claim; that climate change is 'unthinkable'. Of course, this is a deeply paradoxical statement because the moment we try and grapple with the unthinkable, we turn it into a thought, taming it, putting a language on it, connecting it to existing experience. Organisations do the same with the unthinkable - they strive to incorporate it into existing modes of being and doing. Climate change is thus a ‘threat’ that all organisations face, whether proactively (in win-win ideology) or reactively (in denial or in concession). But what is interesting is how our definitions of climate change have compounded and expanded: moving from a ‘negative externality’ or ‘greenhouse emission’ to an ‘existential threat’ and the ‘Anthropocene’. ‘It really does feel like we cannot think at a scale or scope vast enough to encompass it.

This is why climate change is not a ‘problem’, even of a wicked or superwicked kind, as they say in policy circles. Calling it a problem is an attempt to make a distinction between things in the world that are ‘climate changed’ and ones that are not. But climate change is the moment I turn the engine of a car and ignite the 165 million-year-old microscopic fossil faunae, connecting me to the 35 billion ancient barrels that are drilled, fracked, refined, and transported every single year. Climate change is in the 100 trillion objects that are in, that are the Earth, traversing the stomach lining of the Burmese python and the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, which churns a quarter of the planet’s heat flux. Climate change is the daily operations of simplification, extraction, purification, replication, and acceleration – all of which are needed to create the philosophy of progress that is embodied by nearly every human in this world. Climate change is so unimaginably vast and complex that, to quote George Eliot, ‘if we had a keen vision of it, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat and we should die at the roar which lies on the other side of silence’. It is not that organisations have to incorporate the challenge of climate change better into their strategies, but recognize that we exist within climate change, a context which will last for thousands of years and will be the fundamental starting point of every action, every thought, every expression of organization.

How to Quantify Change

Another dimension of climate change is its incalculability, where its intotalizable effects create emergencies and materialities that are beyond known forms of planning and organizing. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change runs planning scenarios up to 6 degrees of climate change by the end of this century: a scenario where most of the planetary surface is uninhabitable, the oceans have stratified and mass extinction will initiate. Climate change is calling forth forms of organisation without any precedent.

Perhaps a good way to think about it is to compare the forms of organisation that existed at the beginning of the Holocene. The Holocene refers to the previous 11,700 years on Earth, a timescale that corresponds roughly to lower estimates of the effects of climate change into the future. This contrast is the closest thought experiment we have to explain the gulf between this World and a climate-changed World. What did the World look like at the beginning of the Holocene? The Holocene created the most fundamental modes through which we organize still today – the births of language and religion, the concept of resources and exchange, the invention of all known technology, the development of agriculture, domestication, and urbanization. By this metric, climate change as World marks the end of organization as we can think it.

Bleak Optimism

Another important dimension to climate change is that it has already happened and it marks the end of human civilization. What is this death? It is a multi-levelled one – the loss of a civilisation, the irreversible death of difference (biodiversity), and the ultimate limit of the human project. This is a difficult conclusion to make: it is a bleak perspective because current ecological conditions can only elicit such a mood. An unflinching look at this situation invariably leads to despondency.

The space for optimism in this picture comes from the opportunities within the creative foreclosure of the old World. By this we mean organizing for the end of the World that is an escalated, absolutizing commitment to divest justly – a preparing for an end without apocalypse. Accepting what has occurred will be the first step toward to an organizing without hope – without hope that we can return to the World we have exited. ‘Bleak optimism’ is therefore Janus-faced; one side finally acknowledges the unbounded, unthinkable, incalculable nature of this new reality, the other side, a chance to experiment with organizational forms of justice, ethics, politics and reason that are without precedent.

Dr Norah Campbell is Assistant Professor in Marketing and Dr Gerard McHugh is Associate Professor in Accounting at Trinity Business School. This article relates to their research paper:

Cambell, N., McHugh, G. and Ennis, P.J. (2018) 'Climate Change is not a Problem: Speculative Realism at the end of Organization', Organization Studies