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A Planetary Understanding of Climate Change

There is no doubt that in recent years, we have seen an increase in academic literature, international policies, and civil society activism in regard to one of the most urgent crises which our planet is facing- climate change. ‘Hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life, including students, teachers, communities of faith, health care professionals are taking to the streets to demand climate action’. From legally binding international treaties on climate change, such as the Paris Agreement, adopted on 12 December 2015, and entered into force on 4 November 2016 (UNFCCC, 2015), to Greta Thunberg’s environmental activism, which inspired many young people to challenge the quality of political decisions when it comes to the sustainable future of the planet Earth, the international community is more and more worried with these issues. Although despite the progress, the findings of Sending, Øverland and Hornburg identified that since 2015, just 0.76 per cent of the International Relations literature concerned the issue of climate change and complementary topics. Compared with other crisis on the international stage, climate change is pressured by the limited time during which states and their representatives, through a global effort, must find possible solutions. The importance of this topic is given by the critical situation in which we find ourselves.


Before addressing the issue of the human/nature divide of modernity, which might be one of the sources of the contemporary problems, it is fundamental to understand what exactly is not working and what we get wrong about climate change. There are, of course, different levels of understandings and methods of knowledge with respect to any problem in the global arena, but I would like to mention some of them correspondingly with their severity, starting from high to low. Firstly, let us talk about the denial phase. Although, Karera argues that to ’deny the geological impact of human force on nature is now essentially quasi-criminal’, claims such as ‘climate change is part of a natural circle’ are fast spreading among the civil society. Secondly, for some of those who put their trust in Earth system scientists and policymakers, it seems like the current measures taken through international negotiations and agreements represent just enough to solve this crisis. Once again, unfortunately, it has been argued that for example, ‘the Paris Agreement is not enough. Even at the time of negotiation, it was recognized as not being enough,” says CFR’s Hill. It was only a first step, and the expectation was that as time went on, countries would return with greater ambition to cut their emissions’. Therefore, the following question arises: is there a need for a new approach apropos to limiting global warming to 1.5° C (2.7° F)? One may argue that the answers lie in the understanding of international affairs, present political positions, and crisis such as climate change through the lens of ‘the planetary’.


Based on the assumptions that previous shifts of the discipline of International Relations (from state-centrism to human-centrism) have missed to address fundamental concerns, the planetary understanding provides a reflection upon both old and new issues, by providing alternative ways of comprehending problems of the political sphere. In this sense, Bruno Latour offers a representative metaphor when explaining where we position ourselves in terms of both the planet on which we live and of our threatening impact upon the environment. There are three potential positions which have to be considered: the Land, which we abandoned in our modernizing journey, the Global, which is supposed to represent the sum of worldwide integrations, and the Planetary, which is intended to be further analysed in this section. Latour beliefs that at this point in history, ‘the goal of the Globe has vanished, and there is a total indifference to such a disappearance! We collectively behave as passengers in a plane to whom the pilots have announced that they are sorry to say that the landing strip on which they were supposed to land, “Ground Global,” is no longer on any map’, but there is neither possible to come back to the Land as we have completely destroyed it while disserting it. So maybe, it is time to step aside from this two-dimensional scenario and let the appreciation for nature, emphasised by the planetary, guide our judgements and perceptions. Now, once we recognised our alternatives, let us go further and discuss the human/nature divide and the problems which it rises in the context of climate change.


According to the Cartesian assumption on which most of the ‘modern’ disciplines, and likewise International Relations, are based, humanity and nature are completely separated. Latour argues that ‘nature, as a modernist concept, has the strange quality of being the universal ether in which everything was supposed to reside…one single continuous stretch and submitted to the same laws’. Going beyond this division, the human positions himself above nature, taking advantages of its resources and benefits, as nature has no status in our contemporary understandings of politics, and therefore, it is difficult of being represented. So, the following question occurs: isn’t this disconnection the source of the climate change issues? Just think about it. If environmental issues are harmful effects of human activity on the biophysical environment, it is clear that our relationship with nature is rotten. If through the planetary understanding it will be possible to develop alternative ways of recognising the Earth, Gaia or the Terrestrial, then we might have a chance of finding solutions to deal with the most urgent crisis facing our planet- climate change.


Written by Raluca Zaharia


Raluca Zaharia is a columnist at DecipherGrey.