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The seven dimensions for action on climate change

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein said to think of things as simply as possible, but not too simply. Photograph: William Radcliffe/Science Faction/Corbis


Powered by article titled “The seven dimensions for action on climate change” was written by Jonathan Rowson, for on Friday 14th February 2014 15.58 UTC

Albert Einstein famously said that we should make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler. We tend to forget that last bit. When considering what do to do about climate change, perhaps it is timely to ask ourselves: how simple is this challenge?

The Grist journalist David Roberts says climate change is inherently simple: “Do something, or we’re screwed!” Amusing, and true, but too simple because the call to “do something” gets complicated as soon as you ask: what exactly does that “something” mean? On the other hand, when a professor of climate change, Mike Hulme, writes “all human practices and disputes now can be expressed through the medium of climate change,” the challenge begins to sound like a philosophical inquiry into what it means to be human. That may also be true, but it’s not simple enough to help clarify how we should act.

So what’s the right kind of simple?

First, we need a form of simplicity that rejects the lazy conflation of climate change with environmentalism by presenting a more energising set of associations. The environmental framing is unhelpful because the psychological, social and economic phenomena driving fossil fuel production are obscured by debates about the killing of badgers, the dredging of rivers and the protection of otters. Moreover, as long as environmentalists are the public face of climate change, it is too easy to conveniently and unfairly dismiss a universal moral imperative as a tribal anti-capitalist agenda.

Second, the right kind of simple would offer a vision of human behaviour informed by political consciousness, so that calls for “behaviour change” connect with the deep roots of the problem in fossil fuel production, rather than a misplaced emphasis on energy efficiency.

As we argue in RSA’s recent report, A new agenda on climate change, taking the full range of rebound effects seriously means the touchstone for any given intervention is not “Will this reduce localised emissions” but rather, “Will this intervention help to keep coal, gas and oil in the ground?”

Third, the right kind of simple would promote systems thinking, such that the climate problem is not viewed as having discrete independent elements, but rather multiple inter-connected dimensions that co-exist in the same space.

The goal is therefore to capture the complexity of climate change in a discrete number of recognisable dimensions. Distantly inspired by classic research in cognitive psychology on “the magical number seven” that suggests we struggle to hold more than seven items in our working memory at the same time, here is my take on the simplicity we need:

1. Science matters because it is the closest thing we have to an objective reference point for debates that might otherwise lack grounding. It is striking that the world has authoritative agreement on its main systemic threat, but no equivalent authority is close to even constructively disagreeing about what to do about it.

2. Law matters, because it acts as a powerful constraint at scale. Our best hope for rapid climate mitigation still lies in international law, ideally with agreement on a global carbon budget and national commitments commensurate with the need to keep most of our remaining fossil fuels in the ground. We also need law to help administer effective carbon taxes, to reinterpret the fiduciary duty of trustees to balance short-term shareholder value with longer-term risks, and perhaps even to create the crime of “ecocide” that could, for instance, help to limit deforestation.

3. Money matters, because capitalism is the planet’s operating system, and given the time constraints, we will need to respond to the climate change problem from within the system that created it. That means following capital flows, recognising the harm they can do, and rapidly redirecting them so that they help us move towards a viable future. In practice that means divesting from fossil fuels and reinvesting in renewables, while transparently linking growth strategies to ecological constraints.

4. Technology matters because we need innovative forms of creating, storing and transporting energy urgently. However, while we think of gadgets as speeding things up, the process of technological development – from basic research through to intellectual property battles to commercialization – can be painfully slow. The time-sensitivity of the climate challenge calls for an acceleration of the most needful forms of technological development.


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