Citizen Action Monitor

“Is it too late to stop dangerous climate change?” Scholars submit nine essays in response

Several respondents agree that never giving up matters more than meeting some “too late” deadline.   

No 2543 Posted by fw, November 10, 2019

In my prior repost, I featured UK Prof. Mike Hulme’s Introduction to his Editorial Commentary on nine essays, each answering the question, “Is it too late (to stop dangerous climate change)?” I noted that the idea of time running out for action on climate change first gained heightened attention during 2018-2019. Hulme argued that the heated rhetoric of climate deadlines and threats of human extinction exaggerates what science actually says – prompting his “too late?” question.

Today’s repost follows up with another section from Hulme’s editorial, which he headlines “SO, IS IT TOO LATE?

Mike Hulme

Re the nine essays Mike Hulme commissioned to appear in a Special Issue of WIREs Climate Change, Hulme identifies four broad approaches the essayists used in responding to the question “Is it too late (to stop dangerous climate change)?The first approach, “pragmatic realism and guarded optimism” is reflected in three essays, with consensus on the importance of getting the politics of climate change “right” if climate is to be stopped any time soon. The second approach, expressed in two essays, focus on the significant influence of cultural values on groups in different regions – in this case, a Pacific Island perspective, and North American indigenous people’s perspective. The third approach, advanced in three essays, relate to people’s search for hope – hope embedded in a moral and caring society; hope based on the uncertainty about how much time we have left to act; and hope in the belief that it’s not too late to “learn how to dwell in this predicament.” The fourth approach, adopted in three essays, radically redefined the parameters of what climate change signifies. For example, to ask “is it too late” one must consider “too late for whom?” And rather than trying to solve the climate change crisis, perhaps we should be adopting lifestyle changes that enable us to live with the predicament we created.

Below is my slightly edited repost of Hulme’s summary of the nine essays, which he presents in two sections: First, he lists the authors’ names and hyperlinked titles of the essays; Second, he summarizes the main points of the essays. NOTE: all linked essays include quick-read abstracts along with full text.  Note, as well, that I have added to Hulme’s author/title citations, additional information about the authors academic credentials and research interests.

My repost also includes added subheadings and highlighted text. Alternatively, read Hulme’s complete Editorial Commentary, including links to the nine essays, by clicking on the following linked title.


Is it too late (to stop dangerous climate change)? An editorial by Mike Hulme, Wiley Online Library, October 23, 2019

School children protesting about climate change in Erlangen, Bavaria, Germany.

The nine essays appearing in this Special Issue of WIREs Climate Change, volume 11(1), 2020, are as follows:


Re the nine essays, Hulme identifies four approaches the authors used in responding to the question

The nine contributions to this [Special] Collection speak for themselves, but let me here draw together a few threads from across these essays and offer a few interpretative perspectives of my own. I identify four broad approaches to how these commissioned authors answer the question.

The first approach, reflected in three of the essays, agree on the importance of getting the politics of climate change “right”

The first position is the pragmatic realism and guarded optimism expressed in [three] essays –

  • Jewell, J., and Cherp, A. (Sweden) On the political feasibility of climate stabilisation pathways: is it too late to keep warming below 1.5°C?
  • Dubash, N. (India) Revisiting climate ambition: the case for prioritising current action over future intent
  • La Rovere, E. (Brazil) The potential contribution of emerging economies to stop dangerous climate change: the case of Brazil

[They] agree about the importance of getting the politics of climate change right if climate change is to be arrested anytime soon.

Jewell and Cherp are concerned that economic and technical feasibility assessments of deep emissions cuts have squeezed out the harder work of evaluating their political feasibility. These authors want to offer some hope that change will happen fast enough, but in the end are pessimistic that the necessary political alignments are achievable.

As if to illustrate Jewell’s argument, La Rovere offers an optimistic view about what can be achieved technically and economically, emphasizing the possibilities of low emissions development strategies (LEDS) in his illustrative case of Brazil.It may not be too late to stop dangerous climate change,” he concludes. And yet his conclusion comes with a huge caveat: “If such policies are implemented quickly enough, then …” Given the new politics of Brazil under Bolsonaro this “if” would seem to rather avoid the question of political feasibility, the very point Jewell and Cherp are making. La Rovere might equally well have concluded, “It may be too late unless these policies are implemented quickly enough,” turning his hopeful optimism into political realism.

Dubash’s position is somewhere in between these two. He recognizes that too often desirability (i.e., good intentions) has been mistaken for (political) feasibility. For this reason, he argues for a more pragmatic approach to the politics of delivering countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). To escape mere rhetorical gaming — the eternal danger in international political negotiations — Dubash wants an emphasis on learning‐by‐doing. Countries should move forward, step‐by‐step, prioritizing experimentation about which policies are economically, technically, socially, and politically feasible. He advocates for monitoring the trends in actual policy outcomes, rather than merely calculating whether the pledged numbers stack up — as think tanks such as Climate Analytics repeatedly offer. This resonates closely with the argument recently put forward by Fuller and Font [Keeping air pollution on track] with respect to the related problem of air pollution: “Switching the [evaluative] emphasis to trends and rates of change, rather than compliance, would provide a transparent connection between policy measures and outcomes.”

The second approach focuses on the cultural resources available to groups in different regions

A second line of reasoning from [two essays] is to foreground the cultural resources available to different groups of people which can be deployed to resist the drivers and impacts of climate change.  [This approach is expressed in two essays, both of which] seek to resist the simple idea of “it’s too late,” but Whyte’s analysis is darker —

  • Hayward, B. (NZ), Salili, D. (Fiji), Tupuana’I, L. (NZ), & Tualamali’I, J. (NZ) It’s not ‘too late’. Learning from Pacific Small Island Developing States in a warming world
  • Whyte, K. (USA) Too late for indigenous climate justice: ecological and relational tipping points

Hayward, Salili, Tupuana’I, and Tualamali’I write from a Pacific islands cultural perspective and draw attention to the traditional community values of vai nui or fonofale (i.e., interconnected well‐living). Hayward et al. offer an optimistic account of how such cultural values can defuse some of the dangers of climate change.

In a similar vein, Whyte’s argument, from an indigenous people’s perspective in North America, is to recognize the powerful notion of kinship and the qualities of trust, accountability and reciprocity that have long characterized such cultures. [But] Whyte’s analysis is darker. The historical damage already wrought on indigenous people in his continent, he argues, cannot easily be undone — certainly not unless environmental justice is placed at the forefront of all plans to tackle climate change. Again, just hitting the carbon or Celsius numbers is far from an adequate solution to the loss and damage caused by climate change.

The third approach relates to people’s search for hope

A third approach to answering the question can be recognized in the arguments put forward [in] three essays [that] come at the question from a psychological angle, and both develop positions that seek to offer hope.

  • Bain, P. (UK) & Bongiorno, R. (UK) It’s not too late to do the right thing: moral motivations for climate change action
  • Moser, S. (USA) The work after “it’s too late” (to prevent dangerous climate change)
  • Garrard, G. (Canada) Never too soon, always too late: reflections on climate temporality

Bain and Bongiorno are quite explicit about this and suggest that diverse groups of people around the world are in fact quite prepared to embrace (radical) changes to their behaviors and social arrangements, changes that might be seen as necessary to undermine the drivers of climate change. For them, even now, “people are motivated to bring about a more moral and caring society” (p. 7).

Moser on the other hand is a little more cautious. She too is seeking out sources of hope amidst apparent despair and finds it by focusing on the psychological and imaginative space that can open up for people after they have confronted what she calls both “the endings and possibilities” of climate change. While at one level this seems contradictory — it is simultaneously too late, but yet not too late, to stop dangerous climate change — Moser explores how hopeful action in the world can be sustained in the indeterminate time that now lies before us. Although writing from a literary rather than a psychological perspective,

Garrard’s conclusion is not dissimilar. He resists the easy option of reducing our imaginative response to climate change to the binary choice of either salvation or catastrophe. Yes, it is too late (to stop climate change), but it is not too late to “learn how to dwell in this predicament (p. 6).

The fourth approach is to radically redefine the parameters of what climate change signifies

Finally, a fourth approach to answering the question can be discerned among these [three essays].

  • Farbotko, C. (Australia) Is it too late to prevent systemic danger to the world’s poor?
  • Whyte, K. (USA) Too late for indigenous climate justice: ecological and relational tipping points
  • Garrard, G. (Canada) Never too soon, always too late: reflections on climate temporality

This [approach] is latent in several of the nine essays, but is most explicit in Farbotko, Whyte, and to some degree, also in Garrard. This is to radically redefine the parameters of what climate change signifies, to refuse to be limited by the global numbers of carbon budgets or degrees Celsius that drive the discourse of “12 more years” and “it’s too late.”

For Farbotko, far more important than asking “Is it too late?” is to ask the ethically charged question “For whom might it be too late? She argues that the climate solutions being pursued (to avoid dangerous climate change) may simply heighten other dangers for those who are already left out of the global systems and networks of wealth creation, livelihood security and human rights. This she calls out as “the systemic embedding of social exclusion” (p. 1) and is as big a danger to human welfare and global justice as climate change itself, if not bigger.

Whyte also seeks to escape the narrow formulation of solving climate change as a question of getting the numbers right. For him the answer to climate change lies in reopening the past, in considering a much larger set of interlinked dynamics of imperial history, economics, politics, justice, and human development. In calling for equal attention to be given to “relational tipping points” as to ecological ones, Whyte agrees with Farbotko in warning that mere climate solutionism, without attending adequately to environmental justice, may simply perpetuate future precarity for billions of people.

Garrard also refuses to engage the question on its own terms, but his resistance is for a different reason. His reading of the question is rooted an understanding of the human condition as one comprising frailty, unknowability and ambitious, yet limited, moral and material agency. From his humanities perspective, shouldering climate change — more fully and profoundly than the politico‐scientific framing of the IPCC allows — means learning to live better with the predicament we have created rather than trying to solve it.

For these latter three authors in particular there are no numerical deadlines which can or should constrain or determine the necessary human reflection on climate change or that should shape our political action in the world. It is already well too late for many (Whyte), or may shortly be too late for many more (Farbotko), or else lateness itself is an unhelpful notion as we come to terms with the full implications of our humanity (Garrard)—which includes the material transformation of the planet and our profound cultural diversity.

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This entry was posted on November 10, 2019 by in academic counterpower, climate change, information counterpower and tagged , .
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