COP27 – Systems Change for Climate Action

On day 2 of the COP27, session 3: High-level Session on Systems Change and Climate and Sustainability Innovations examined the deep paradigm shift needed for effective climate action. There was one key overarching message that I took from this session that also resonated with my own work: we need a radical rethink of our economic systems, social justice, and the way we approach natural resources.

There were two issues that panelists argued need addressing in terms of innovation if we are to address climate change effectively and timely: 1) decoupling human wellbeing from the use of natural resources; 2) power, or rather the decentralization of power. Both issues are addressed in a Buen Vivir framework, which is one reason why I focus on the concept, not only for social wellbeing but ecological wellbeing too. It ties into yesterday’s discussion on empowering local communities for climate action.

Janez Potocnik, Co-Chair of UN International Resource Panel hit the nail on the head when he argued that we need to move from an economy that sees humans as external to nature, to one which understands humans are a part of nature. He also stated that we need to remove the causes which lead to negative impacts, of which extractivism is a core function because it is a driver of human needs, but it is also the cause of great inequalities.

Janez argued that to live sustainably, we must move to provisioning for human needs, rather than servicing existing paradigms. I argue further that in that, we must also provision for environmental needs. Without taking into consideration the needs natural resources, ecosystems and biodiversity have to continue to function and thrive, we risk destroying them to the detriment of society.

Dr Andres Steer, President of Bezos Earth Fund brought up the critical issue of power and control – that in the absence of empowering local communities to take action on the ground, any advances in innovation (whether that be technological, knowledge, economic, or otherwise) are void. This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges to effective climate action, the ability for decision and policy-makers, and others who hold the balance of power to cede some of that power to local communities to identify and implement solutions.

We see this with the concept of neoliberal development, under which the idea of sustainable development – and multilateral policymaking forums – sit. The overarching paradigm sees one set of values as dominant and therefore urges everyone to take the same approach, without having any idea about local challenges and the context on the ground. Dr Steer urged the UN to consider this transformative climate action, pleading, “as we think about changing the system, let’s not forget that on Monday morning we need to address real problems on the ground.” In other words, high-level aspirational commitments are nice, “and make for good dinner party conversation”, but are not always conducive to feeding effective solutions in real-time.

In closing this session, the facilitator summarised that “we have called for radical rethink. We have called for accepting that we will have to act in crisis. We are not going to be dealing with a world that is not in crisis.”

On that note, it is reassuring to hear the acknowledgment that frameworks and concepts like Buen Vivir, Donut Economics, Degrowth, Circular Society, and others that were once considered too ‘radical’ and pie-in-the-sky, could bring the kinds of holistic empowerment solutions the world needs in times of urgent climate crisis. Now it is about taking these from idea to action.

A Good Life for the SDGs

Photo by j.mt_photography on Pexels.com

Time to change the lens for sustainability?

The Sustainable Development Goals were adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as a universal call to social and environmental sustainability, with an overarching goal of ending poverty and protecting the planet by 2030.  Universal is the keyword. This means they apply to everyone, everywhere, regardless. This makes them more aspirational than practical and because of this, it’s argued that they are impossible to achieve. Indeed, by all accounts, they are failing. And, we’re running out of time.

The 2022 Progress report on the SDGs details the immense challenge ahead of us in terms of achieving social, environmental and economic sustainability. The report admits a backward slide against the Goals (albeit in the face of significant “cascading crises”, most notably in terms of poverty, climate change, and environmental indicators.

Climate change and sustainability come hand in hand. A changing climate is a major challenge for social and environmental sustainability. In turn, the way modern society functions is far from sustainable long, or even medium term and is hastening the speed of climatic changes that are occurring.

The IPCC has confirmed that climate change is caused by human activity, and it is happening at a speed faster than first realised. Thwaites “doomsday” Glacier in Antarctica, for example, is melting at a speed faster than could ever have been anticipated, threatening global sea levels to rise up to .6m https://theconversation.com/thwaites-glacier-the-melting-antarctic-monster-of-sea-level-rise-podcast-191057

UN Secretary-General, António Guterres has called the current climate situation a “code red for humanity”. Everyone everywhere will (and already is) experience the wrath of the past decades’ inaction. As I have argued many times, we cannot continue to decouple human and environmental wellbeing. These “cascading crises” are complex, and they are entangled.

The outlook is not good. While it seems like we are on a one-way course for destruction, there is definitely hope in limiting the scale of future destruction, if we band together, separately. That is, if we change divert the approach from ‘universal’ to ‘contextual’. Immediately.

In the words of Sneddon et al. (2006)

“Sustainability may yet be possible if sufficient numbers of scholars, practitioners and political actors embrace a plurality of approaches to and perspectives on sustainability, accept multiple interpretations and practices associated with an evolving concept of “development”, and support a further opening up of local-to-global public spaces to debate and enact a politics of sustainability.”

Because climate change is a global challenge (perhaps the biggest!) with no geographical limits it requires a global response. Let me rephrase that, it requires a response globally, that is anchored in local geographical, climatic, ecological, socio-political, economic and cultural context.

The thing about place is that no one locale is the same. Place is a complex notion. Each comes with its own identity, challenges, and socio-economic situation. The identifying factors aren’t just social, each place is unique with its own environment, biodiversity, ecosystems, topographical, geological, and geographical advantages and disadvantages. Place influences a person’s identity and their empathy towards nature, which plays a role in the motivation for climate and sustainability action. The perception of place is then vital to social and environmental justice at the community level. This makes the community context the most practical viewpoint for addressing social and environmental issues.

What’s more, climate change is not and will not affect each place equally. Each community will mount its own challenges that are unique to that place. So, it is nonsensical to then believe that we can apply a universal approach to these issues, even if they have global scope. Plus, large-scale transformational systemic change is inherently complicated, and especially drawn out – a major issue when dealing with issues on an urgent timescale like climate change.

Global declarations and treaties are a vital part of the international system. They are an important tool to set the wheels in motion for action in all parts of the world, and they outline states responsibilities and obligations in responding to challenges that affect us all. But, they are not effective in their own right. International action is firmly squared within the boundaries of neoliberalism, which promotes universal values in line with Western standards, and ignores the diverse realities of communities everywhere. This has indeed been one of the most common critiques in relation to global climate declarations. International climate diplomacy must be coupled with locally anchored solutions within a context that speaks to locally-identified needs and challenges, otherwise they are all but useless.

What alternative approaches like Buen Vivir do is remove local action for social and environmental justice from ideal and aspirational universal values and provide local communities with agency to drive solutions that meet their realities. As a hypothetical example, let’s look at two climate-related flood disasters, the solutions that are required for (comparably) affluent communities in Northern New South Wales in Australia will not work in the poor communities of Pakistan who are currently experiencing climate flooding of biblical proportions.

 Small-scale transformational change breaks up larger big-picture goals like the SDGs and makes them amenable to place and context. Smaller chunks are easier to swallow and (notwithstanding all the complexities in a community) quicker to achieve real change. Concepts like Buen Vivir also help reconcile the social and environmental aspects, that builds bridges between the two rather than having them almost compete for attention.

Local action for climate change is crucial and Buen Vivir provides a framework for locally driven solutions that build resilience, mitigate impacts, and allow communities to adapt in relation to their own realities. It that respect it provides a tool for increasing social and environmental wellbeing in the face of these challenges. Having local solutions unadulterated by the global agenda yet capable of working together in cooperation with it is vital for transformative action at this point. ‘Together yet apart’ – much like the catchphrase of the COVID lockdown period.

Even the upcoming COP27 in Egypt has recognised the importance of working together for implementation against the old notion of a single negotiated outcome. The Presidency Vision states the need “to replicate and rapidly upscale all other climate-friendly solutions towards implementation in developing countries”. “Together for implementation” is the theme, with the Presidency saying that implementation needs to happen “on time and at scale”, and be “specific, measurable, and impactful”.

Each of the principles of Buen Vivir has the potential to cooperate with the wider global Goals, but leaving it to the communities to identify the needs and respective solutions. I outline just how the principles converge with the Goals in my book and more recently paper published in the Community Development Journal .

Never before has the term “think globally, act locally” been more prevalent than now. And never has the call been more urgent!

The People’s Charter for an Eco-Social World

The Global People’s Summit: Co-Creating a New Eco-Socio World was held 29 June – 2 July 2022. I was honored to have been included in the program, presenting my research on Buen Vivir.

One of the key outcomes of the Peoples’ Global Summit was the ‘Peoples’ Charter’ shaped by diverse voices across the globe and based on the values of Buen Vivir, diversity, respect and Ubuntu, for the co-creation of globally shared values.

The People’s Charter is a living document and reference point that will grow as the world’s populations share their solutions for a sustainable planet where people live in peace and security. It is co-designed and co-built.

“The People’s Global Summit recognises that the pledges made by governments since the founding of the United Nations – the pillars of peace, development and human rights – have facilitated crucial steps forward but have not yet been realised. Challenges are at crisis point. Rights have been eroded. Inequalities and fractures have grown. Poverty sits alongside extreme wealth. Nature has been degraded, leading to climate warming and environmental destruction. Millions of people have been displaced as a result, adding to the millions more displaced by conflict and violence. The governments that made these commitments have prioritized competition over collaboration and sovereignty over solidarity. They have not yet served the people they represent.”

The Charter sets out five values for a new Socio-Eco World and seven implications going forward. The purpose was to create a call to action for world leaders at the United Nations High-Level Political Forum and General Assembly in July 2022.

If you missed the Summit, you can still watch the presentations by clicking the sessions in the program here. Be sure to check out some of the amazing keynote speakers, as well as the opening ceremony by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterrez and climate activist Dr Kumi Naidoo.

You can read the contribution book here.

Transformation for Climate: but, of what?

The latest warnings from the IPCC predict that the world is heading towards critical temperature limits. We have already reached 1.0 degree of global warming. The IPCC report estimates that global warming is likely to triple to 3.2 degrees unless urgent, radical action is taken immediately. The IPCC warns that incremental change is no longer enough, and what we need now is transformation. But, what does this mean?

The IPCC defines ‘transformation’ as, “a change in the fundamental attributes of natural and human systems.” Is this enough to prevent it from becoming another catchphrase amenable to co-optation as the status quo sees fit?  To avoid perpetuating what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calls, “a litany of broken climate promises” the course will have to change. We are running out of options.

Transformation, therefore, should effectively address and change the structural and systemic causes of social and environmental injustices that impede any genuine change. Confronting the crisis requires urgent political and societal change.

Transformation then is not only about technology and energy policy, but also a holistic approach to how we govern society on an interwoven planet. So, when we talk about transformation, we also have to talk about what type of transformation, who is involved, how, and at what scale.

The type of transformation that can see us through the change we need is plural, locally embedded, embraces all forms of knowledge (not only technological), and is inclusive of all geographic, cultural, socio-economic, developmental, and linguistic realities. It also needs to transform behaviours and practices from a largely anthropocentric model of society to a more holistic view that embraces a human society interwoven in harmony with nature.

To speak in metaphors of interwoven systems, humans have long viewed the world like a double helix, one strand representing nature as a living being, necessary for life, and the other strand representing society seeking to dominate nature and control it. The two strands coil around each other but running in opposite directions, their purpose intertwined, yet never touching. Yet, nature and society are more like an intricately woven tapestry. One loose thread in one part, can see the rest come completely undone. We are part of nature and any attempts at transformation to save it from climate change must recognise this.

Transformation is more than about scientific and technological mitigation strategies. Part of this is shifting mentalities firmly towards a post-extractive economy, not only discussing transition. The transition to just climate policies is important, we have to get it right, but merely focusing on discussions of what it looks like takes away from the immediate radical change that is needed and the larger goal of what comes after. Continual discussion about transitions without immediate action only sustains current convictions, planted in short-term fixes.

A hybrid approach that incorporates daily social transformation with the ultimate vision of what needs to be achieved to limit global warming will help achieve both long and short-term goals. In the quest for daily transformation, education plays a major role. That is, education on all levels, formal, in the home, in communities, and in policy. Education must be strategic not to continue the messages of the past. The transformation of education thus must also be systemic. I will discuss the transformation of education in my next post.

Post-Extractive Circular Society

The theme of Earth Day yesterday was “Invest in our Planet”. The question needs to be asked, at which point does the fix-all economic narrative become redundant? While we do need future investment in new technologies, we can no longer hide behind the rhetoric of techno-fixes for reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Yes, technology and will play a crucial role in transformation, but relying on it to achieve the real physical change that is needed in urgency is not the solution. Perpetuating the myth that we can build our way out of this through technology that supports exponential economic growth is dangerously digging us a deeper grave.

The IPCC report states that other mitigation strategies are likely to be prohibitively expensive, and that is the excuse used in ideological stances to abandon any kind of concrete change. According to Munich Re Research, in 2020, climate change disasters have led to estimated global economic losses of A$272 billion. Yet, when we look at the costs of inaction the argument mounts that it may very well be more economically expensive to continue down the same path of slow transition and economic justification, but more than that it will also cost us much more than money, it will and is starting to cost lives. In 2020, there were approximately 31 million internally displaced people from climate change impacts alone. By 2050, think tank IEP estimates that at least 1.2 billion people could be displaced by climate-related events. We can therefore legitimately argue that there is more at stake than economic growth.

A move to a low carbon society will not be effective at its aims if it destabilises ecosystems and puts efforts to protect biodiversity in jeopardy. This is why transformation must not only be about the types of energy we transition to, but also how much and on what scale. For true transformation, the use of renewable resources has to be in harmony with nature, as well a society. After all, even renewal resources perpetuate an extractive mentality on a large-scale as part of a neoliberal economic growth strategy. Our global economic model, for starters, has to evolve and transform with the challenges that lie ahead.

The ways we transform the energy sector should also be plural, locally embedded, and embrace all forms of knowledge to sustain transformation in harmony with nature. Policy strategies like moving towards a circular economy, which embed multiple approaches with the same aims such as Donut Economics, Buen Vivir, Regeneration, or even Degrowth can be part of a just economic transformation towards a post-extractive society. Instead of thinking about it as only economic as we do with a circular economy, by embracing these various approaches in tandem, we can then evolve towards a circular society – renewing and regenerating all life in harmony with the natural environment.

The UN calls for “transformation [that] requires attacking the root causes that generate and reproduce economic, social, political and environmental problems and inequalities, not merely their symptoms” but there is no concrete blueprint for this type of transformation. Many scholars have argued that this requires visioning a post-extractive society that focuses on regenerative approaches to society and natural resource management.

In regeneration, it’s important to look beyond fossil fuels and carbon emissions because of the circular effects of environmental destruction. Here, the models and frameworks I mentioned earlier work within a regenerative, circular society, such as Donut Economics, Buen Vivir, and Degrowth, for example. For future actions that are compatible with nature, so that the environment may regenerate and flourish, incorporating the rights of nature into future global and national climate policies would be beneficial.

Regenerative alternatives to development promote a state where human society and nature live in harmony. Regenerative approaches are not just about reaching Net Zero, but they are holistic and integral in that they seek to leave environments and their societies in a better state, having a positive impact on human wellbeing and the environment as a whole. 

So, in summary, when we think about the type and scale of change needed to tackle the environmental challenges that lie ahead, transformation must be plural, locally embedded, and embrace all forms of knowledge, particularly Indigenous knowledges. It is regenerative, seeking structural and systemic change which includes, as a foundation, formal and informal education systems. Transformative regenerative approaches work in harmony with nature and seek to enhance environmental wellbeing, as well as societal wellbeing. Transformation then, upends the way the world currently works, towards a more socially and environmentally sustainable future, not solely towards better economic growth.

The ‘Transformative’ SDG Moment for Rethinking Sustainability

Shutterstock

The 76th UN General Assembly has kicked off this week with the ‘SDG Moment’- a call to renew momentum for the SDGs, but the COVID-19 pandemic has had profound impacts on how governments manage global social and environmental policies. It’s clear that an approach that promotes universal growth-oriented Goals is simply outdated.


Several scholars and experts have called for the need to revise the SDGs for a post-COVID world – one which will be profoundly different to the world in which the SDGs were designed.


Transformation often happens through crisis, and right now the entire planet is living a climate crisis, a social crisis, and a health crisis. This tells us that business-as-usual will not suffice to overcome the challenges we are living right now. To achieve environmental and social ‘transformation’ the SDGs will need recalibrating to include a contextual, community-led, and wellbeing-oriented alternatives that embraces holistic visions of wellbeing.


The SDGs call for ‘transformation’, yet as a perpetuation of the idea of mainstream development, they are doomed to fail if we do not abandon the people-above-nature-growth-above-all-else mindset and align 17 Goals with community-based, grassroots, alternative approaches. The way the SDGs have been conceived is simply not feasible, realistic, sustainable nor attainable.
Opening the 76th session, the President of UNGA 76, Abdulla Shahid of the Maldives, said we need a “new narrative” for the SDGs. The UN itself has admitted that “to get the SDGs back on track and prevent the worst impacts of climate change, a profound shift in economies and societies everywhere, is now needed.”


Our Common Agenda” contains 12 points for action, agreed on by member states.

Member states concluded that our challenges are interconnected and can only be addressed through reinvigorated multilateralism with the United Nations at the centre of our efforts. While collective action is crucial, especially with crises like climate change and COVID-19 that transcend national boundaries, it is equally vital that this high-level multilateralism better incorporates community-led action and capacity for transformative change.


One way to do so is to reprioritise five fundamental dimensions: people, planet, peace, prosperity, and partnership to ensure that ‘people’ refers to shifting power to allow for bottom-up approaches to environmental and social change. It is also imperative in that respect that the five dimensions do not perpetuate the anthropocentric vision that has dominated global sustainable development approaches so far, and that it reintegrates ‘planet’ to include people as part of nature, not a dominant force upon it. By shifting the power from a universal approach to the SDGs to proliferating plural community-led approaches, we incorporate the aspect of ‘partnership’ to achieving change. Here, the keywords are connection, reciprocity, and plurality.


What is needed is a framework that appeals to both the SDGs calls for ‘transformation’, as well as for a more citizen-empowered approach to achieving sustainability by aligning the global Goals with a local, community-led and biocentric approach to social and environmental wellbeing: the Latin American framework for Buen Vivir.


In my book, I discuss how Buen Vivir can allow governments to rethink the way they approach sustainability and align the global goals with contextually-appropriate community-focussed action. You can find a copy of my book here. The chapter titled “Rethinking Sustainability: Making the Global Align with the Local” is available for download on the SDG Online portal.

Howarth (2012) argued, “A sustainable future will emerge if we build institutions that, on a practical level, sustain the natural environment and the social and technological conditions that will empower future generations to define and pursue their own conception of the good life”. Buen Vivir will require rethinking sustainability, in particular the SDGs as a plural albeit community-led approach, requiring cooperation from local, national and global actors for rapid and genuine transformation.

Regenerating and Restoring the planet goes beyond Earth Day. Here’s how we can do it

Our world is broken in many ways, compounded by climate change and biodiversity loss. Human impacts have had a profound effect on the changes in nature.

Humans have led to a broken world. It’s time to for us restore the earth! For today, Earth Day 2021, that is the theme.

The global pandemic highlights the urgency of environmental action at every level of society. Restoring the earth doesn’t just mean relying on government action, it’s  a reminder that we all have to come together and contribute to a brighter future – one of hope.

‘Sustainability’ is no longer enough. ‘Sustainable development’ hasn’t worked. Let’s change the narrative. Let’s look at other approaches that can reconcile our society with the planet that sustains us. We have the opportunity to turn away business-as-usual, challenge the staus quo and regenerate and renew the earth.

We can do this by shifting our behaviours, and changing our worldviews on our role and relationship with nature. This involves deep societal change. But in the words of Martin Luther King, “today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.”

Earth Day should not be just symbolic, however, it’s an opportunity to continue the conversations of change which can lead to real, practical transformation. Here some ways all levels of society can do so from individuals,  communities, industry and governments:

• Prioritise Indigenous and traditional knowledge and incorporate them in public policy and decision making.


• Look towards ideas like Buen Vivir that seek to restore the connection between people and nature, and between each other. This means moving away from a transactional society and towards collaborative living and collective socio-eco wellbeing.


• Start implementing and supporting regenerative activities like regenerative farming, agriculture, gardening, and tourism.


• Educate. Teach the next generations what can be done for the future, and instill a reciprocal planet-people mindset. Centre Indigenous and traditional approaches to resources in education.


• Move to a circular and regenerative economy, and localising that through social and solidarity economies that connect producers with consumers and provide equitable outcomes.


• Change consumption patterns with cooperation between people, governments, business, and organisations. At the most basic level this can involve tree planting; reductions in energy consumption and waste by individuals and industry, supported by effective policy; better waste management solutions incorporating new technologies.


• Support research in and harness sustainable technologies to support a circular and regenerative economy, and help support individual efforts.


• Declarations of a climate emergency coupled with effective strategies and policies to implement necessary changes.


• Celebrate and promote a ‘culture of restoration and regeneration’ through art, music and storytelling to motivate and inspire action.

A Reset for Unprecedented Times

Maria Zambrano* lives in the highlands of Ecuador’s Cotacachi Canton, home to two of the world’s 36 internationally recognized biodiversity hots pots. It is also home to a people fiercely committed to their own social and environmental well-being. Zambrano is an Indigenous Ecuadorian of the Kichwa people. Sitting at a café in Cotacachi, the seamstress is dressed in a black wrap-around skirt and a traditional embroidered white shirt, on which she’s done all the embroidery. The colorful stitching, she explains, is symbolic of her land, depictions of the connection between humans and Pachamama, which she uses to refer to Mother Earth. Pachamama, she says, is at the heart of everything she does.

Read more

Published in Yes! Magazine Winter 2020 https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/what-the-rest-of-the-world-knows/2020/11/03/a-reset-for-unprecedented-times/

COVID-19 is the chance for a social and ecological reset….but, how? Part II

Support independent research

Become a monthly subscriber to get access to this and other content.

Subscribe to get access

Read more of this content when you subscribe today.