By Mael Dick-Bueno
A Special Report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2018) suggests the planet has less than two decades to ensure that global temperatures do not rise more than 1.5°c. Apart from drastic thoroughgoing actions, there is no silver bullet to solve climate change, that begets a range of contemporary social issues by exacerbating already existing structural inequalities. The overriding message of this essay is that, while climate change issues “are actually going to be solved technocratically and politically”, the strong onus on top-down solutions is pointless if not supported and corrected by bottom-up approaches.
Technocrat-led, government-coordinated responses are critical for undertaking the big structural changes in societies required to successfully solve the wicked problem of climate change. An effective climate leadership could actually stem from a technocratic system in which democratically (s)elected leaders would be steadfast on their responsibility for climate action. However, just as with meritocracy, technocracy has historically underpinned a social, economic, and political organization based on wider objectives of economic profit and technical “progress” (Meredith, 2020). Since the Industrial Revolution, this governance system has benefited a self-perpetuating technical elite, whose activities triggered anthropogenic climate change in the first place. Thereupon, the pitfall of technocracy when addressing climate change is that it simply transforms the pattern of current inequalities and reproduces hierarchies. This is not to say that there have not been steps forward. But, pursuing merely a technocratic and political approach to climate governance has so far proven ineffective, because technocrats and politicians alone have not been able to overcome their vested interests and ideologies that oppose action.
The Kyoto Protocol offers a prime example of the prisoner’s dilemma among leaders, who will not act until all the others do. The idea was to create a carbon market to price greenhouse gas emissions, so as to ensure, from the top down, that all countries meet their reduction targets. Such an effort is exactly the kind of political measures that are necessary to address climate change. The Kyoto Protocol was nonetheless flawed and doomed from its birth. Indeed, its climate targets did not encompass developing countries such as India and China, and the United States of America declined to ratify the agreement. Top-down solutions are thus useless if all governments are not eager to implement them.
In order to understand the bureaucratic inertia of current climate policies, a parallel can be set with the history of political responses to popular protests against racism and police violence in the USA. While several commissions have been called upon by Washington to investigate the root causes of these so-called race “riots”, practically nothing has been done to follow the recommendations of the resulting government reports. An article dealing with the History of the 1968 “Riot” Report is hence subtitled “How government commissions became alibis for inaction” (Lepore, 2020). In the context of climate change, the repeated setbacks of top-down solutions actually demonstrate how government climate summits became alibis for inaction. Therefore, despite the fact that climate change can only be addressed technocratically and politically, neither technocrats’ hoary dreams of rationalizing environmental policy through the market or geoengineering solutions, nor progressive environmentalists’ hopes of heroic state-led mobilization, are doing enough to address this issue.
The relative speed at which governments have moved on the coronavirus, compared to inaction on the long-running climate crisis, confirms that societies are so focused on the short-term that they wait to see the worst happening before acting on it. Nonetheless, lessons can also be learned from the current pandemic on how to tackle climate change. It indeed demonstrates that substantial measures can be taken, and money can be earmarked for action, only when there is political will. It is trite to note that political leaders are usually reluctant to enforce reforms at the expense of living standards or economic development because doing so would mean incurring the wrath of both voters and big donors. Seeing how public pressure on governments has spurred swifter action during this pandemic has been a lesson in the potential of virtue-signalling. It proves that top-down decisions alone cannot solve wicked problems without bottom-up support and pressure. While top-down solutions force behaviour changes through policy, bottom-up approaches should influence policy through behaviour. Moreover, many people have become aware that they cannot rely merely on top-down decisions but must gather to collectively assert their own specific needs. In Good Neighbors, Nancy Rosenblum argues that, under extreme conditions, the barest action is a bulwark against total ethical breakdown when the government, political institutions and the organized association of civil society are failing or are broken (Rosenblum, 2018). This “democracy of everyday life”, as she calls it, represents a counter-power to technocracy that would ensure top-down solutions are actually taken for the benefits of the community instead of those of an elite.
If “mutual aid is aimed at root causes – at the structures that created inequality in the first place” (Tolentino, 2020), the “we are all in it together” attitude of the mutual-aid initiatives, that have emerged amidst this pandemic, can help progress the climate cause too. It is exactly this kind of collective approach based on cooperation that is needed to tackle climate change. Hence, it is not surprising that the do-it-yourself biology movement has gained legitimacy in the recent months (Talbot, 2020). The idea of the failure of top-down solutions is the basis of the do-ocratic approach, an organizational structure in which active citizens participate in public life not only by voting but also by developing the solutions to the issues not dealt with technocratically and politically. An informal, local, and bottom-up structure of climate change leadership focused on climate justice can thus correct the pitfalls of the formal, top-down actions, that tend to reproduce existing inequalities while solving the problem. When solutions emerge from the ground-up, their benefits come more quickly to those at the bottom. Therefore, bottom-up approaches are necessary adjuvants to tackle climate change. They strengthen top-down solutions, correct their mistakes, and take direct action if necessary.
To conclude, the bewildering range of climate change issues undoubtedly needs to be addressed technocratically and politically, from the top down. However, bottom-up approaches are always simultaneously necessary, either to support/pressure top-down efforts or to substitute for government action if required. When addressing climate scientists during the COP25 Climate Conference, Greta Thunberg stated, “I am telling you there is hope. I have seen it. But it does not come from governments or corporations. It comes from the people”. A top-down approach is certainly going to solve climate change and other important contemporary social issues. But only if driven by ordinary people’s hope.