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Time to stop talking about the climate?

A burning forest and Director Emily Boyd. A split image. Photo: Unsplash and Peter Frodin.
If the climate continues to be purely an environmental issue, Emily Boyd believes we will see more opposition to political decisions to limit emissions. Photo: Unsplash and Peter Frodin.

A warmer world affects health, jobs, migration and welfare. We can no longer talk about the climate as a separate issue, says sustainability professor Emily Boyd.

– Climate change has long been seen as something separate from society. People often talk about negative effects on our natural environment rather than how a changed climate may affect our everyday lives. This means that many people, perhaps especially here in Europe, find it difficult to link the climate to their own situation, says Professor Emily Boyd, Director for Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, LUCSUS.

She believes that we must instead talk more about how the climate can affect health, equality, jobs, migration, consumption patterns and polarization.

– What politicians decide plays a big role in how quickly we reduce emissions. But politicians must have the support of voters in order to be re-elected. Therefore, the climate must come higher up on the voters' priority list.

– In Sweden, healthcare and immigration are some of the voters' most important issues. I think we need to show, and communicate more clearly, how these things are related to the climate in order to put the climate issue on the agenda. One way we can do this is to research the link between the sustainability goals and the climate issue, for example the goals of good health and reduced inequality, and highlight tensions between the goals.

If the climate continues to be purely an environmental issue, Emily Boyd believes we will see more opposition to political decisions to limit emissions, as in the case of the suggested increased petrol and diesel tax in France that triggered major demonstrations in 2018.

Legal processes for the climate

However, Emily Boyd also sees that there is a new "trend" where more and more groups, especially young people, are mobilising through protests but also by pursuing legal proceedings against states because they are not doing enough to stop the climate crisis. As a result, the Netherlands has been forced to tighten its climate policy and the French state has been convicted of climate passivity.

– Legal processes and mobilisation are something we will probably see more of in the future, as a reaction to the politicians' inability to pursue a more powerful policy and follow the agreements, such as the Paris Agreement, which they have actually already committed to follow.

Increased polarisation between different groups

Emily Boyd believes that the contradictions between young people's wills and demands for a tougher climate policy and the priorities of older generations, as well as that between different political camps, and between city and country, can lead to increased polarisation in society. Therefore, one must open up for dialogue about what the societal consequences of dealing with a changing climate can be, as a way of creating a broad consensus among different groups.

– People must want to make a change to something else. Here we can make a major contribution as researchers by highlighting the disproportionate effects of climate change, not only on the environment but on all aspects of human life. We can also shed light on how different groups view climate change and try to understand what may make individuals want to make a change.

Messages that lead to change

The rhetoric used to describe the effects of climate change must also change, she believes. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres, saying that we are on the brink of an abyss creates climate anxiety rather than a willingness to act for the climate.

– I, and many climate scientists with me, believe that we must start talking in terms of a collective change, not about doom. Rather than communicating concerns, we can contribute by highlighting solutions we can stand behind and take responsibility for.

At the same time, it is important to highlight how urgent it is to act, she says. 2020 was one of the three warmest years since measurements began, and a recent report shows that between 2010 and 2019, the Amazon leaked more carbon dioxide than stored, and that the rainforest may eventually cease to be a rainforest.

Emily Boyd is leading a team of researchers investigating who is disproportionately affected by climate change, and how they are affected. Non-economic losses and damages due to a changing climate are especially important to document from a climate justice perspective. It is clear that economically and socially vulnerable groups are hit harder than other parts of society by hurricanes, droughts, heat waves and floods as well as slower changes such as sea level rises, temperature rises, sea acidification, land degradation and loss of biodiversity.

– To highlight how climate change affects what underlies people's identity, culture, way of life and relationship with the world, I think is a valuable way to show how the climate affects more than just the environment. If people have to move or lose their jobs, it affects their way of looking at themselves and also their mental health. But we must also shed light on ways to reverse this development, for example by better understanding the new societal conditions that the climate crisis is opening up, she concludes.

A woman, Emily Boyd. Photo.

Emily Boyd

Emily Boyd is Professor in Sustainability Science at Lund University Centre for Sustainaibility Studies. She is a leading social scientist with a background in international development, environment and climate change, with focus on the interdisciplinary nexus of poverty, livelihoods and resilience in relation to global environmental change. Emily Boyd is currently leading work on undesirable resilience, politics of loss and damage and intersectionality in societal transitions, including on transformations under climate change. 

Emily Boyd  is an author for the IPCC, IPBES, and UKCCRA and a Earth System Governance Senior Fellow. 

Read more about Emily Boyd