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The Power of Dissent

A New Climate Debate?
A friend just sent me a link to a news article headlined “New climate debate: How to Adapt to the End of the World.” As a researcher interested in successful adaptation to climate change, I found the story a bit unsettling. On the one hand, scientific evidence shows that we are on a precarious trajectory and that adaptation is necessary. On the other hand, to open a debate about adapting to the consequences of a planetary climate catastrophe is to divert attention and resources from the many other ways to reduce risk and vulnerability, including through broad and deep social transformations. To adapt to “game over” is to fail to consider possibilities to change the game — including to stop seeing it as a game in the first place.

There is no doubt that we need to adapt to changes that are underway. However, there are enormous differences between adapting to a world that is 1.5°C to 2°C warmer, compared to a world that is more than 4°C warmer. Sea level rise introduces devastating losses to many nations and communities, but the difference between 30 cm, one meter, and three meters of sea level rise is profound.  The decisions and actions taken today will influence future outcomes for the remainder of this century and beyond, and to adapt to the current logics, institutions, and social practices is to take them for granted, assuming that we simply cannot transform currently unsustainable trajectories. This is where dissent comes in.

Dissenting from the Status Quo
To dissent is to express disagreement with a prevailing view, policy, decision, institution, practice or assumption that is contributing to dangerous climate change. Over the past seven years I have had the pleasure of working with Elin Selboe – a political geographer — and Bronwyn Hayward – a political scientist — to study how young people express their dissent within a political climate that is characterized by powerful interests, strong rhetoric, and weak action on climate change.

Our research has focused on three different ways that youth activists are dissenting from the status quo, which we refer to as dutiful, disruptive, and dangerous dissent. Importantly, this typology does not describe the motivations or intentions of youth, but rather how their actions may be perceived by those with political and economic power.

The paper, available here, emphasizes that most successful social movements have involved all three types of dissent, and it recognizes that many young people engage with all types, either simultaneously or sequentially. Dutiful, disruptive, and dangerous dissent can together be a powerful  force for change.

Dutiful dissent involves working for change within existing systems and power structures. It is reformist, in that it is about joining new or emerging institutions and seeking windows of opportunities to influence policies, behaviors, and outcomes. Disruptive dissent challenges existing systems, contesting the social, economic, and cultural drivers of inequitable and unsustainable development. It is oppositional, drawing attention to historical and present-day injustices and power relationships that perpetuate rapid climate change. Dangerous dissent defies business as usual by initiating, developing, and actualizing alternatives that lead to long-term transformations. It is propositional rather than oppositional, and it tends to build new relationships and systems grounded in worldviews that are more integrated and inclusive than those that have contributed to the problems in the first place.

In considering both the strengths and risks of dutiful, disruptive, and dangerous dissent, it becomes clear that all three are needed to shift systems. However, the existence and potential of dangerous dissent is often overlooked in discussions of climate activism, probably because it is subtle and difficult to grasp. This is precisely its power. Dangerous dissent is generative, emerging from paradigms that challenge the way we relate to ourselves and to the environment, including how we approach both social change and climate change.

It is motivating and inspiring to realize that young people are engaging with climate change in ways that go far beyond traditional environmental activism. And here  lie some important lessons for climate change adaptation.

Amplifying dissent
Let’s go back to the idea of “adapting to the end of the world.” To adapt to worst case scenarios of climate change is to concede that humans lack individual and collective agency, have no transformative capacity, and are unable to actualize a sustainable world. It is to ignore that people all over the world are dissenting – dutifully, disruptively, and dangerously – and that everyone has the potential to shift systems and cultures. The challenge is to amplify dissent across society to minimize climate change risks and vulnerability while maximizing meaning and mattering.

Education plays a particularly important role in both fostering and amplifying dissent. Traditional education, however, is unlikely to be sufficient given the need to rapidly “bend the curves” to avoid dangerous climate change. Transformative learning can empower people of all ages with the knowledge, skills, and sense of political agency needed to critically and creatively engage with systems change. Responsibility also lies with those who are making policies, shaping decisions, and taking actions today that are influencing  the future that young people will experience.

At the end of the paper, we consider whether the lines between “youth” and “adult” are, in fact, becoming blurred. Indeed, young people of all ages are taking greater responsibility for their future, “while many adults behave as children, protecting their toys and games as the climate continues to warm.” Can we get out of our own way to enable transformations to sustainability to flourish? Can we challenge our own assumptions and engage with critical reflection and life-long learning to recognize that we all have a stake in the future?

As more and more people adapt to the idea that we can transform the future, the power that the status quo holds over that future is transformed.  It may be time to collectively rewrite the headline of the news article: “New Climate Debate: How to Adapt to the End of the World as We Know It”?

Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

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