Climate change in the symbolic order
07/12/2011 § 1 Comment
It turns out that Prof Weitzman is a Lacanian and doesn’t even know it. At yesterday’s public lecture in Wellington, he made two observations about the symbolic order and climate change:
- the problem of climate change is unprecedented in human history, for its complexity, uncertainty, public good aspects, and potentially catastrophic outcomes; and
- it would be helpful for mobilising actions to deal with climate change if something ‘symbolic’ (his word) happened, but that didn’t harm human welfare too much.
He had me at ‘symbolic’. What could he mean? And what does it mean for climate change?
The first point means that ‘climate change’ has a particular position in the symbolic order that probably doesn’t correspond to the physical damage it could cause human, um, construction, civilisation, society. That is, climate change exists in our thinking like all other signifiers. It exists in relation to other signifiers, in a particular place in the symbolic order. That place is dictated by how our thinking has developed historically. It is rooted in what has happened. If the situation is unique, without precedent, then we are likely to have difficulty thinking about it.
The second point completes the thought. If we can’t ‘think’ climate change properly given our current symbolic order, then that order needs to change. To change that order, we need to insert a new signifier into the symbolic order or change the relationships amongst the existing signifiers. In other words, our definition of ‘climate change’ has to change. Our conception of climate change as it relates to other signifiers has to change.
That’s what Weitzman meant by needing something symbolic to happen. Something would have to happen that shifts the symbolic order enough to provoke people — individuals, communities, nations — into action.
Interestingly, one of the other signifiers that may have to shift is ‘discount rate’. We have specific uses and definitions of discount rates. They have a place in economic analysis. But, given the long time periods involved with climate change, discounting means that future damages are essentially inconsequential. So, reacting to climate change — deciding that it is consequential — means shifting the relationship between ‘discount rate’ and ‘climate change’.
Finally, this will all happen in the Symbolic. We will not start doing anything until we think it is necessary. Weitzman wasn’t hopeful about humanity’s ability to do anything about climate change until it has already taken hold and done serious, obvious damage. Even then, it will be about recognising the events as signifying ‘consequential climate change’, as opposed to just plain old climate change.