Climate change is a relationship problem, and treating it like one may be the best thing we can do to ensure a sustainable future. Climate change is not just about carbon and methane or mitigation and adaptation. It’s about our relationship with the environment, with each other, with other species, and with “stuff” of all sorts. It is also about our relationship with time, especially the future. If we want to successfully address climate change, we may have to start by transforming these relationships.
Systems are relationships
A system is defined as a set of things working together to form a complex whole, and a relationship is the way in which two or more things are connected, or the state of being connected. When we talk about the climate system, the energy system, the Earth system, or social-ecological systems, we are talking about interconnections and relationships. Yet as Donella Meadows (2008) remarked, we are often not very skilled in understanding the nature of these relationships.
Systemic changes often come about through changes in relationships. For example, adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere increases the absorption and emissions of infrared radiation, which changes the radiative forcing, or the balance between incoming solar radiation and outgoing thermal energy. This influences forces, flows and motions, which then affect where, when and how much rain falls, how much water is available to plants, the size of crop yields, food prices, the income of farmers, and so on. Humans are always in a relationship with systems: we are part of the system and our actions influence systems and eventually ourselves.
In the case of climate change, we are contributing to systemic changes that can have severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts. Unfortunately, sometimes it is too easy to forget that as part of the system, we have the potential to observe, reflect and respond wisely to influence and change outcomes. Yet if we ignore interconnections and relationships, well-meaning efforts to respond to climate change can end up making matters worse, often for “others.”
“Changing relationships usually changes system behavior. The elements, the parts of systems we are most likely to notice, are often (not always) least important in defining the unique characteristics of the system—unless changing an element also results in changing relationships or purpose”
(Meadows 2008, p. 91)
Relationships with others
Not surprisingly, relationship problems are often blamed on others. Yet it is precisely the idea of “others” that is challenged when looking at things from a relational, systemic perspective. Drawing firm lines between “us” and “others” creates the illusion of separation, emphasizing distinctions rather than commonalities. This makes it easier to prioritize the interests of parts rather than the whole. When the environment is considered separate or external, when people or groups are labelled as different, and when some species or ecosystems are viewed as expendable, connections and relationships deteriorate. The system suffers and everyone is affected, sooner or later.
Relationships with time
“Sooner or later” is a perspective. In fact, time is a perspective that is always perceived and interpreted in relation to one’s viewpoint or focus of attention. A year or decade can be a large or small fraction of time, depending on age, experience, or the view that we are taking. A 100-year climate change scenario may represent an eternity to some, yet feel like tomorrow to others.
Perspectives matter. Although climate change can appear to be a gradual process, it will represent an abrupt and anomalous spike when it is viewed from the perspective of deep time or “big history.” At the same time, although climate change looks like “just another spike” from a geological time perspective, the rate and magnitude of the change is unprecedented for modern human beings and most of the species that have evolved in the Holocene Epoch. Whether we are concerned with the big picture or just a narrow slice of time, the point is to recognize that our relationship to time changes when we change our perspective.
Relating to the future
Viewing climate change as a relationship problem inevitably raises questions about the future. Where do we want our relationship to go? What kind of future do we want? Do we see ourselves as just another species that randomly appeared through genetic mutations, proving to be capable of exploiting resources, expressing our creative and destructive power, then disappearing into the fossil record? Or do we view ourselves as an evolutionary expression of life with a growing capacity to reflect, learn and change? The answers to these questions are likely to influence our actions in the present as well as our relationship with the future.
Some people still deny that there is a relationship between human actions and climate change, and instead attribute all variability and change to external sources and forces. But to deny a relationship problem does not make it go away. Changes will continue until the patterns become both visible and tangible. Indeed, “Notice Me” is a common cry when there is a relationship problem. Melting glaciers, changes in precipitation, more extreme heat waves, and rising sea levels are obvious examples, but there may also be subtle impacts, including emotional and psychological ones.
If we turned to relationship experts for advice on how to address climate change, there is no doubt that their recommendations would vary. However, most would probably agree on the need for communication and dialogue, which includes a willingness to listen. Some might say that acknowledgement play important roles in improving relationships. For example, recognizing that people and ecosystems have experienced losses and damages from past actions (or inactions) could be critical to moving forward. A few might even suggest that love works better than fear as a motivation for changing relationships.
Relating to Change
At the end of the day, addressing climate change as a relationship problem comes down to a simple choice: How do we relate to change? Will we deliberately transform relationships to support an equitable and sustainable world, or will we merely try to cope with the transformative impacts of climate change? If we listen to climate change experts, there is still a window of opportunity for avoiding dangerous climate change. If we listen to relationship experts, the sooner we deal with the problem, the better!
Back to Perspectives.