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The T word: Powerful and political

What’s in a word? Everything.  We use words not only to communicate and express thoughts and ideas, but also to structure discussions and debates on important topics. Words help to define what is important, and they have power. The word ‘transformation’, for example, has tremendous power.

Nowhere was this more obvious than in the IPCC Plenary Approval Session for the Working Group II Report on “Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability“.  The word transformation raised contentious debates in the Yokohama meeting, making it clear that “climate-resilient pathways” for sustainable development will be decided in the political sphere, moreso than in the practical sphere of technical and behavioral solutions.  Over the five-day meeting, discussions focused on questions such as “what kind of transformations” and more important, “who decides?”

Transformation is used in different ways in the Working Group II report, most often referring to a change in the fundamental attributes of a natural or human system. The report considers both observed and potential future impacts of climate change, including transformations of ecosystems, food systems, human health, human security, or poverty and livelihoods. Such transformations are referred to as risks, and relevant to the identification of “dangerous climate change” under Article 2 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The IPCC Working Group II report also considers the role of transformation as a response to climate change. Here, “transformation” takes on two distinct meanings. In some parts of the report, it is used as a type of adaptation that may be necessary to reduce risks associated with the observed or anticipated impacts of climate change. Transformational adaptation may involve moving people and assets, changing locations of production and activities, or scaling up policies and practices. Transformational adaptations are not only relevant to scenarios of global temperature increases of 2°C or 4°C – in some cases they are already being discussed or enacted (for example, in relation to agriculture or coastal settlements).

In other parts of the report, transformation is used to describe integrated responses that include not only adaptation to climate change impacts, but also mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and the pursuit of sustainable development policies and actions. The latter address environmental and social issues beyond climate change, recognizing that these also influence vulnerability and risk in a changing climate. Transformation is thus not only about adapting to the impacts of climate change, but about limiting the risk of such impacts in the first place. It is about reducing risk in a world that is currently tracking along a high emissions trajectory that, if continued, is likely to result in global temperature increases of 2.6°C to 4.8°C. Moving to a different development pathway clearly involves more than incremental change and business-as-usual approaches.

To change fundamental attributes of a system, often some key assumptions about the system itself need to be challenged – whether about the boundaries of the system, how change comes about within a system, or the capacity of humans to individually and collectively influence systems. These are often associated with altered paradigms (a set of ideas about how something should be done, or thought about) or goals (defining the purpose of a system). It is here where the word transformation becomes both powerful and political.

A transformation of paradigms and goals is powerful because it can lead to nonlinear changes. As Donella Meadows (1999) points out, “people who have managed to intervene in systems at the level of paradigm have hit a leverage point that totally transforms systems.” Paradigms influence how one sees the system, how one engages with change, and how one prioritizes different goals. Yet this raises some ethical issues, for while it is one thing to change one’s own paradigms and goals, changing those of others has always been problematic.

A transformation of paradigms and goals is political because it can be used and potentially abused to promote certain agendas. During the IPCC Working Group II plenary approval session, some delegations wanted the concept of transformation to be eliminated from the report, as it could represent a threat to countries and communities and their ability to define their own strategies and approaches to sustainable development. This represents a valid concern, for there is indeed a risk that that the concept will be used to impose an existing paradigm on others. For example, it can be seen as a way to seek compliance with investments in a “green economy,” justification for market-based approaches to climate change, or acceptance of geoengineering interventions, regardless of whether or not they are consistent with national or community-level goals, based on the latest understandings of Earth system science, or in the interest of future generations. History is full of imposed transformations that have gone awry, and responses to climate change carry the same risk.

The power of transformation lies precisely in its potential to raise political debates about what type of future is desired. When paradigms and goals are expressed and revealed, the assumptions, beliefs, values and worldviews underlying them can be critically examined. It often becomes clear that the structures that hold them up – the rules, norms, institutions, interests and power relationships – are products of paradigms and goals that are inconsistent with climate-resilient pathways for sustainable development. Although the Working Group III Report on Mitigation of Climate Change does not use the word ‘transformation’ to describe responses, its repeated references to large-scale changes (e.g., in the energy supply sector and afforestation) make it clear that business-as-usual approaches will not meet the challenge.

Transformations are already happening, and some relevant questions include: what types of transformations are desirable or considered acceptable, by whom, and why? The WGII Summary for Policymakers concludes that “transformations in economic, social, technological and political decisions and actions can enable climate-resilient pathways.” Such decisions and actions are, however, never neutral; the real power of the word transformation lies in its ability to start new debates about what is important and why.

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