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Harriet Bulkeley, Matthew Paterson and Johannes Stripple (eds) Towards a Cultural Politics of Climate Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), pp. 246.

Reviewed by: Simon Dalby (Balsillie School of International Affairs)

In the aftermath of the December 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, policy makers in numerous places have begun to grapple with questions of how to formulate nationally determined contributions to greenhouse gas reduction. The Paris Agreement puts the onus clearly on individual states to craft strategies that make sense, given their particular circumstances. Given how different those circumstances are in various states, this approach is an entirely sensible way to start the process of seriously reducing the use of carbon-based fuels. Unfortunately, it does not offer any clear guidelines as to what might be effective across many states that face different circumstances. Neither does the Paris Agreement provide practical suggestions on how to gain the widespread political support that is needed to deal with climate change.

Opening of the Signing Ceremony for Paris Agreement on Climate Change. photo credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten.

While the urgency of dealing with climate change is obvious to those who have engaged the issue seriously, the political resistance, to many of the measures that policy makers might reasonably assume are sensible, has been noteworthy in many states. The roots of this resistance are obviously an important consideration for policy makers. Towards a Cultural Politics of Climate Change contains a collection of essays on the broad cultural dimensions of the climate discussion that engage with the question of resistance. They do so by emphasizing how deeply embedded energy consumption is in the cultures of modern states. There is considerable engagement with contemporary political and cultural theories in these pages. The dense conceptualizations in this text reflect the richly detailed analysis contained in the case studies.

People desire the devices that modern life provides. In doing so they often dissent from many of the simple and practical initiatives designed to tackle greenhouse gas emissions. The book focuses on the three themes of devises, desires, and dissent to explore how deeply embedded culture is in the material artifacts of modernity. The topic of climate and culture involves much more than the usual discussions of media representations, semiotics, and ideology. Material culture is obdurate and the technologies that make up high-carbon economic systems are very persistent, which in turn makes the implementation of low-carbon strategies difficult.

Case study chapters in this volume deal with numerous aspects of how governance works in these difficult policy arenas. An analysis of the European Commission’s climate campaign in terms of governance techniques suggests that the focus on simple, practical, personal actions downplays the complexity of the climate issue. Australian cities and corporations are involved in over nine hundred initiatives concerning climate change. They produce a complex ecology of governance that obviously works through numerous agencies. Houses are a most basic part of how people live. British programs retrofit housing stock to make it more energy efficient. While it is too soon to conclude as to whether community housing initiatives can morph into a larger cultural shift towards low carbon living, climate change will be tackled in this manner in coming decades. The success of such programs will in part determine whether states can meet their intended, nationally determined, contributions.

People’s Climate March in Melbourne, 2014. photo credit: Wikimedia Commons: John Englart (Takver).

The book’s discussions about how technology is used emphasize that old- fashioned arguments, which are blaming technology for environmental crisis, are not helpful in addressing the transition to low-carbon economies. We have to engage with questions of how to make low-carbon lifestyles desirable. Doing so may require sophisticated production systems and a green ascetic culture that allows living well without using large quantities of energy. These new lifestyles will also need to attend to the sense of loss that a move from contemporary modes of technology may involve. Gasoline-powered automobiles are the quintessential device that is widely used and aspired to globally. The humble bicycle is making a comeback and the politics of cycling and transportation planning are key to rebuilding urban infrastructure.

Everyday choices are an important component of the cultural politics of climate change. However, the extent of change is dependent on how these choices will engage with the technocratic state and corporate-led ‘post-political’ consensus initiatives on greenhouse gas reduction. In particular, the politics of housing developments and the clash between desires for domestic comfort and energy efficiency connect to the desires for devices that lead to an energy-intensive lifestyle. Finding new technologies that provide comfort without combustion is a key part of the transition from material culture. This transition is necessary if we want to meet the goals stipulated in the Paris Agreement.

This is also a matter for corporate strategies too. Efforts to reduce the carbon footprints of commodity chains are also intensely contested in both administrative arrangements and advertising strategies. All of this becomes even more intense if efforts are made to attain carbon neutrality, never mind reaching the negative carbon consumption patterns that will be needed in the latter part of this century. Struggles over the future of building codes and electricity utilities, and over which modes of generation they use to provide power epitomize the mundane daily issues that are shaping how societies will attempt to meet their greenhouse gas reduction targets.

Summing up, the editors point to what will become an ever more important part of the climate discussion; the fact that we live in a world where some models of energy consumption are fairly persistent. Even so, we live in a rapidly changing world. New technologies and designs are shaping the future. Rather than thinking in terms of a stable high carbon-use world that we collectively need to change to a stable fixed low-carbon world, it is much more useful to think in terms of flows, and dynamic change in how investments are made and technologies adopted. Climate policy is about intervention to shape the future and it is already happening in many places and modes of governance.

Single technical fixes are not enough. A much better mode of thinking about the commitments that are needed in the coming years is to view material culture as a flexible and malleable process that involves people, cities, and corporations in shaping the future. As the editors conclude, there is no single path for a low-carbon future, but multiple routes that will emerge, even as high-carbon economies continue to be built for the foreseeable future. If we want to successfully tackle climate change, it will be necessary to enroll numerous people and institutions willing to experiment in various ways in different cultural contexts to make low or no carbon futures.

This will be a messy process, not one that gives itself to neat categorizations or one-size-fits-all blueprints. Material culture has never been simple; however, utopian planners may have assumed the opposite. The practical tasks of building a better world remain complex and flexibility is going to be key to governance in the coming decades as the Paris Commitments evolve. The Paris Agreement has set in motion an essential part of the process; it helped us recognize the need to experiment in numerous ways. This is necessary in international negotiation just as much as on the smaller scales as this book makes clear.