As Leonardo DiCaprio’s The 11th Hour hit theatres this fall, the buzz about global climate change got a whole lot louder. But it’s not just that the volume has been turned up. The very nature of the public discourse on our climatic future has shifted dramatically over the past 18 months, driven by the convergence of extreme weather events around the world and the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sobering Fourth Assessment Report last spring. The big question these days is not “What if?” but “What now?”
The pursuit of solutions to global warming and the examination of its implications cut across academic disciplines. It’s bringing together researchers, teachers and students from all corners of the University of Victoria campus. The broad-based response to climate change has created opportunities for unusual collaborations. Courses have been combined so that environmentalists and technologists can learn together—and from each other. And a new climate-focussed grassroots organization has been formed by students, with representation from faculty, staff and alumni.
Environmental Studies Prof. Kara Shaw has long been interested in the ways contemporary environmental challenges reshape politics, but she only began focusing on climate change about a year and half ago. “I spent all this time just desperately trying to pretend it wasn’t happening,” Shaw admits. A political theorist by training, she adds that she’s “still on a 90-degree learning curve.”
That steep ascent started when she fielded an unexpected phone call from the Institute for Integrated Energy Systems. IESVic, a research centre in the Faculty of Engineering, tries to advance the use of sustainable energy by developing and promoting new technologies. “They wanted someone to bring some social and political context into their highly technical analysis,” recalls Shaw, a request that piqued her interest despite her lack of experience in the energy field. “I went over not knowing anything about energy systems really, but I found them to be a dynamic and interesting group.”
Her resulting teaching and research collaborations have convinced her that climate change is fundamentally an energy problem and that energy is, among other things, a political problem. It calls for “a new understanding of what parts of our behaviour are relevant to climate change and then thinking about what kinds of governance institutions would help us move that behaviour in the directions we want.” She finds, though, that traditional political theorists tend to have a narrow view of what those institutions might be. “I think a lot of the really important work that is done by the environmental movement gets missed by political scientists, because they’re so focused on the government and on policy.”
Working with energy system researchers has also offered her a new perspective on how the environmental movement regards energy production. “There’s a kind of rigidity in thinking about technology within the environmental movement that’s perhaps getting in the way of engagement,” she says. She cites the reluctance to discuss environmental impacts of renewable energy technologies and the opposition, under any circumstances, to nuclear energy as a viable alternative. “These kinds of refusals are going to be counterproductive in the long run.”
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