The current climate narrative centres the cause and cure of climate change on greenhouse gasses. The main strategy is emissions reductions, with sequestration as a support act. Yes, we do have to eliminate the use of fossil fuels as quickly as possible. But this strategy is failing and will continue to fail. Let’s call it the carbon-centric climate paradigm.
Paradigm is an important word. Thomas Kuhn used it in his 1962 book, The Structure of Science Revolution. According to Kuhn, science doesn’t evolve in a straight trajectory but lurches from an old paradigm to a new paradigm. Perhaps the best example is the shift from the Newtonian clockwork model of the universe to Einsteinian relativity.
This image shows how the revolution happens. A paradigm is a settled, broadly accepted set of theories and models. But as disconfirming evidence mounts, the paradigm is challenged, with this often invoking a staunch defense of the old paradigm. Eventually, the new paradigm becomes normal science.
This doesn’t mean that Newton’s work was invalid. Gravity kept working and apples didn’t suddenly fall up into trees. Our understanding expanded and we had new tools to work with.
What is the new climate paradigm?
The problem with the old paradigm is that it is failing. That wouldn’t be so bad if we weren’t in an engulfing existential crisis. But we are. Our scientists and policymakers have ossified the narrative that the greenhouse gas (GHGs) phenomenon is the main driver of global warming. Other parts of the climate system are passively driven by it. This is another failure of Western reductionism, whereby one factor is isolated and examined away from the whole system, and like Humpty Dumpty we have reassembly problems. Then we turned the problem into nirvana numbers – 1.5 degrees, or 350 ppm and developed market mechanisms to achieve them. Looking back from the future, it will seem like the climate equivalent of blood-letting as a medical cure-all.
We don’t need to abandon what we know about GHGs, but fold it into a wider understanding of earth systems. The brilliant Walter Jehne tells us that the hydrological cycle is responsible for a lot of global warming. Allan Savory points to holistic management to regenerate soil and climate. And in some of the poorest places on earth, people are blending traditional knowledge and permaculture principles to harvest water, extend vegetation cover and cool their landscapes. Biophilic cities, such as Singapore are greening their buildings and public spaces to cool their cityscapes. Knowing the photosynthetic potential of microalgae and kelp, people are regenerating our oceans. New ideas, such as the biotic pump deepen our understanding of the world.
These are regenerative practices. Regeneration is a great word because it works for the environment and for communities. Regeneration is much better than sustainability, which Daniel Wahl calls 100% less bad. Restoration is good, but we have been damaging the planet longer than we think – we need to do more than just fix it. Through the regenerative lens, “systemic vitality increases” and things get better and better. Our soils get deeper, our plants and animals get healthier and our rivers flow more and get cleaner. This regenerates our communities too. This concept is also important because the other side of the coin is degeneration, and you don’t need to look far to see where that plays out in the environment.
What do we call it?
I like regeneration as a term. “Cooling” is good too. But cooling confines the task in front of us in terms of climate only. While that is scary enough, the problem is bigger. The degradation of our food systems, the lack of water security and biodiversity loss are massive challenges. So right now, I am leaning toward “the regenerative earth” paradigm. (Walter Jehne was there probably more than a decade ago). But tomorrow I might think differently.
Having consistent language is very important. As words and phrases become more widely used they become coded with meaning. For example “Eat your greens” doesn’t need elaboration. Nor does “emissions reductions. We need the regenerative earth equivalent of emissions reductions to increase engagement around the practices that will heal the climate.
So what do you think? Please leave a comment below. Also there is a survey coming soon to get wider perspectives on what we best call this new climate paradigm.
Learning and Unlearning
Learning can be hard, but unlearning can be even harder. The climate narrative is embedded in Western reductionism with its inherent assumptions of objectivity. To dodge the climate bullet and regenerate the planet we must embrace a wider array of knowledge systems. After all, indigenous peoples have proven to be the best stewards of the natural world. We need to learn from them.
It is also interesting that both Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein were reflective and intuitive in addition to having brilliant scientific minds. They were also prepared to chart new ground. If they had listened to other and conformed to current norms we would not had benefitted from their learning.