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Understanding the climate change battle of attitudes

  • 12 June 2014

World Environment Day this year was celebrated in the shadow of policies crossing in the mail. As the United States President took steps to deal with carbon emissions, the Australian Prime Minister walked away from them. Beneath the complex political considerations in these responses to the natural environment stir deep passions. Disputes about the environment and climate change are not simply about facts but touch something deeper, almost religious, in character.

The depth at which attitudes to the environment are rooted is suggested also by the coherence between the attitudes people take to the environment and those they take to government spending on the disadvantaged, to the response to crime and to asylum seekers. These attitudes are also passionately felt and held.

They disclose the stance we take towards the world, how we imagine our own position and that of other human beings in the world and in society.

Many of those who are sceptical about human contribution to climate change and who oppose environmental regulation see human beings primarily as individuals responsible for their own lives and advancement. They see human beings as in control over their world, and entitled to freedom; they are deeply suspicious of restrictions imposed to protect society, the environment or future generations. And they believe that human prosperity and wellbeing will be best advanced by giving full play to individual initiative and action.

From this perspective we human beings are masters of the world, and the natural environment is the theatre of our action. Any damage that our play does to the natural world can be remedied by further planning and remedial activity.

The passion that those who deny global warming express in debate is not inspired simply by the perceived factual wrongness of their opponents, but also by the fatal affront that they cause to the idea of the autonomous and entrepreneurial self. They represent human beings as dependent on their environment, their individual freedom and agency shackled.

Those who accept the claims of climate change generally see human beings as constituted by a complex set of relationships to other peoples and to the natural world. They imagine our individual freedom as directed to the common good and to the flourishing of all these relationships.

It follows that we stand within our social and natural environment and not over it. So our actions will be judged by the effect they have on other relationships, and particularly on the most disadvantaged