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Resolving our Cognitive Dissonance - Kennedy Graham COP21 blog 2

Kennedy Graham, MP, Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand

The extraordinary saga that climate change has become raises profound issues to do with the human condition.  

When an existential issue confronts a people, or indeed a species, the underlying question initially goes unrecognised: what is the cognitive framework adopted for interpreting, and solving, the problem?  

We know about paradigmatic change in the sciences from classical to post-modern – from the Ptolemaic framework through Copernican, Newtonian and Einsteinian to the emerging Theory of Everything.  We recall the progression in law and morals from the classical ‘just war’ to the Covenant’s ‘war as a last resort’ to the Charter’s ‘authorised armed force for peace and security’. There are others.  

It is what Harari calls the ‘imagined order’; the need for the human group to perceive, judge and act on the

basis of a shared cognitive framework.  Its origin may be myth but that is secondary; science fulfils the same role and, itself continuously evolving, is but one step ahead.

What, then, is the cognitive framework for dealing with climate change?  Our problem is that, because it is so new, and is about ‘Everything’ at least in human terms, the sheer complexity of the problem clouds our collective vision of what, even how, we are thinking.

The frameworks, in fact, are several, and in each case there are competing paradigms within. But to some extent they remain subliminal, so we engage in swordplay at the political surface without fully comprehending the source of our differences.

I see three frameworks within which we perceive, negotiate and act (or not) on climate change. They address the issues of value, agency, and criteria.  In combatting climate change, what do we take to be the supreme value? What is the agent of action?  And on what criteria do we decide action?  In short, why, who and how?


Why? The value

In the first framework, we debate the merits of anthropocentric v ecocentric v ecological value.  Do we value the climate for humanity’s sake, or for all life-forms, or through intrinsic respect for Nature itself?  The basic document, the Rio Framework Convention, opens with the assertion that climate change is a ‘common concern of humankind’.  And contracting parties are ‘determined to protect the climate ‘for present and future generations’.  Anthropocentrism wins out, at least in the text.  

Yet at the same conference back in ‘92, parties also adopted the Biodiversity Convention, which reflects a more ecocentric concern.  And the Climate Convention notes that climate change may ‘adversely affect ‘natural ecosystems and humankind’.   Beyond this, however, there is no mutual synergy and even the goals in the biodiversity strategy reflect the human interest.  Perhaps this is not surprising; the cognitive framework is the choice of the contracting parties.  And they are the States, and at heart the human State is anthropocentric.  

Yet things are evolving.  At this most basic philosophical level, the dominant human-centred worldview now competes with an ecological counterpart.  Animist in origin, it was first expressed in modern form by Bolivia with its national Framework Law of Mother Earth.  This has, moreover, found its way into the global negotiations, by way of a reference to ‘the integrity of Mother Earth’ in the draft Paris Agreement (Article 2, Option 1, para 2).  The phrase is bracketed and opposed by many at COP-21.  But it is being emulated elsewhere. Ecuador rests national policy on the concept of pachamama. Western countries such as Switzerland are passing similar laws; and in New Zealand the Crown has recognised the rights of nature in recent tribal settlements.

Legislating about Earth for Earth, and legislating about Earth for humanity will produce different outcomes.


Who? The agency

Within the second cognitive framework, there is increasing uncertainty over who is to act.  The dominant actor in the drama, as noted, is the State.  It is the State that has primary legal identity for contractual purposes in public law.  There are 196 parties to the Framework Convention (195 nation-states plus the EU as a superimposed actor for 28 of them).  It follows that legal obligations deriving from the negotiations belong to the State – our binding targets under the Kyoto Protocol for ’08-‘12, for example, our voluntary targets under the Convention for ’13-20, and indeed the INDCs at currently in Paris for ‘20-30.  It is the State that is answerable for performance.

Yet the driving force for emission reductions is the market, operating through private enterprise. So the public agent cedes ground to the private agent, whether it is the local SME or the global corporate.  National legal obligation by the State, the central agency for deciding climate action, becomes undermined by ‘global least cost’, the method for implementing it. Global least cost, moreover, remains simply a concept more than reality since there is no global carbon price and the current quixotic regional-national price regimes bear no resemblance to a rational global market.  The result: confusion, rationalisation, and prevarication.

The agency issue reaches to a deeper level. There is, the evidence indicates, a cognitive dissonance in the working presumption that the international community of some 200 sovereign states can solve a problem of the global commons.   The ’92 Convention makes just that presumption, with the preamble ‘reaffirming the principle of sovereignty of States in international cooperation to address climate change’.   

The problem is that the States are competing more than they cooperate.  We approach the negotiations in zero-sum fashion as if there is a prize to be won.  Although they are qualitatively different, we negotiate climate change the way we negotiate trade deals – striving to maximise immediate material return, irrespective of the consequences for others or of externalities.  This is the traditional way of doing things, and it is killing us.  

The national interest, competitively defined, remains the criterion for our negotiating positions.  Ministers return home, unctuously claiming that the country has ‘punched above its weight’ – an affectation that is certain to prove dysfunctional to the ‘common ends’ when multiplied by 200.  

In the Leaders’ summit that has just opened COP-21, the South African President recited what has now become canon: “Climate change is a major global challenge that requires an urgent global response”.  There is strong evidence, by now, that traditional international negotiations (UNFCCC) are inadequate to the global task.  It follows, logically, that global executive action (UN Security Council) will prove to be the only effective agent. The Council cannot replace the UNFCCC but it should become the lead agent for climate change, holding the negotiating machinery to account, on a quarterly basis, at head-of-government level. There are incipient moves in that direction.


How? The criteria

These competing considerations spill over into the question of ‘how’: what are the criteria for the determining the global and national interest in climate negotiations and pursuing it through policy measures?  

There are three alternative paradigms: economic growth, sustainable development, and human rights.  

The dominant framework for determining the national interest is economic growth.  Under today’s prevailing belief, the economic system turns on growth, and will collapse without it – witness the quantitative easing to ‘solve’ the Global Financial Crisis. The ’92 Convention was careful to note that “various actions to address climate change can be justified economically in their own right.”

The emerging competing paradigm is sustainability.  The uneasy marriage between growth and sustainability, enshrined in the Rio Declaration of ’92, is sustainable development.  The phrase is pummelled between two competing paradigms – continuous growth through improved technology and productivity v limits to growth on a finite planet.  In the former, the economy is superior and the environment is an elastic constraint.  In the latter, the economy is a subset of the environment which sets stringent and non-negotiable constraints.  In the former, progress in climate policy is correlated with the pace of decoupling. In the latter, decoupling is snare and a delusion, since it disregards the broader issues of the planetary boundaries and a safe operating space for humanity, whose numbers have quadrupled within a single life-span and continue to grow.

The States, preoccupied with national advantage in the multilateral arena, decline to choose between growth and sustainability. But theoreticians do; they develop the new discipline of ecological economics.  It seeks to span, in fact to merge, economics and ecology, rejecting a binary division.  Back home in NZ, Massey University’s Marjan van den Belt promotes it in New Zealand.  I have a draft parliamentary bill on sustainability indicators for the Government’s annual budget.  But it is slow going.

Growth and sustainability address the economy.  A new approach to climate change is the human rights paradigm.  The Framework Convention speaks of states’ rights (to exploit) but not individual rights to be protected against exploitation.  Yet a strong rights-based movement has emerged with regard to climate protection.  Just this year:

  • The Oslo Principles (April ’15) laid out an ethical framework for approaching climate negotiations.

  • The IUCN and the Global Network for Human Rights and the Environment have developed a draft Declaration on Human Rights and Climate Change (Nov ‘15).  

  • The Commonwealth Forum of National Rights Institutions adopted (Nov. ’15) a Declaration on Climate Justice.  

  • The Mary Robinson Foundation has developed the Climate Justice Principles.    

Rights impose responsibility. The flip-side of a human right to a clean environment is the legal obligation of the State and their leaders to ensure it. There is a potent movement seeking to have ecocide included as an international crime under the Rome Statute.  A group in The Netherlands successfully sued the government for having an inadequate emissions target. Ecuador has called for an International Court of Environmental Justice.  

A movement is afoot.  It is not, of course, entirely new. The Earth Charter of ’92, adopted by experts in civil society at Rio, laid the foundation.  But the political determination and popular support are unprecedented.

The rights-based approach to climate protection is qualitatively different from economic self-interest.  Human rights are inherent and inalienable; some are non-derogable.  Like Nature itself, they are not open to negotiation.   So, if the human right to environmental integrity and a stable climate were truly to bed in, it would trump economic self-interest of the traditional kind.  Emissions would come down, no matter what the feared cost.


Whether? The synthesis

How to resolve the inherent contradictions, the cognitive dissonance, that continues to bedevil our climate negotiations, a quarter-century on?  Can we achieve a workable global consensus on value, agency, and criteria?  

Perhaps we are beginning to see a way ahead, through a dawning conceptual synthesis.  The new Sustainable Development Goals, for example, are global, comprehensive and coherent.  One of the SDGs is a stable climate.

But ultimately the answer, if there is to be one, lies in new spiritual insight – a paradigmatic change in human self-perception. The initiatives taken in recent years by religious leaders of all faiths are becoming the beacon.  If they are emulated by the faithful, and beyond to civil society, to the market and to political leadership, it may reduce the cognitive dissonance we still encounter in this epic struggle, spawning a genuine consensus over how to live on planet Earth.  

If this were to occur, we might gain a new understanding on what is of intrinsic worth, who is empowered to take legitimate decisions on all our behalf, and what criteria we adopt for determining policy.

If this were to occur, it would signal a new concurrence between spirituality, religion and science.

If this were to occur, we would still stand a chance.

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