A sustainability scientist argues that we should explore diverse ways to approach responsibility.
Despite its significance, climate responsibility remains a rare guest at global climate talks. Some feel guilty but don’t want to pay. Others feel harmed and ignored. Consequently, dialogue seems hardly possible. Now, new research published in WIRES Climate Change suggests a better way forward.
Sirkku Juhola, a sustainability scientist at the University of Helsinki, argues that we should give up protective stances and explore diverse ways to approach responsibility as such. Building on previous work by other researchers, Juhola distinguishes four types of climate responsibility: care, liability, accountability, and responsiveness.
Approaching climate responsibility as care allows for taking an anticipatory approach with the state acting as a key authority to prevent negative impacts of climate change on society before they occur. In today’s world, the approach is mostly manifested in Nationally Determined Contributions that align national climate action with goals set by the Paris Agreement.
While Juhola talks mainly about formal procedures, this also resonates with climate advocate Holly Buck’s suggestion for rediscovering ethics of care for the Earth in these times of the Anthropocene. From this perspective, shifting from blame to care can support more ambitious action and enhance collaboration among actors.
Second comes responsibility as liability, mostly related to climate impacts of historical carbon emissions. While developing nations are likely to suffer most from the impacts of climate change, it is developed ones that have emitted most CO2. Liability is one of the toughest approaches to enact in real life, however.
Meanwhile, an agreement seems to be emerging that an effective framing of responsibility in this way can usually be helpful. Framing responsibility through accountability engages multiple actors beyond the state where each looks at their own impacts and tries to do what is possible from their own perspective. Voluntary action by cities, individuals, and companies show a high potential for this approach, with an increasing number of success stories around the globe. Though highly promising, the approach still faces many challenges, including coordination, lasting engagement, and large-scale impacts.
It comes linked to an final take on responsibility, which is framed as responsiveness. The approach once again builds on a preventative stance and collaboration, while focusing on potential impacts, risks, and vulnerabilities. It is not about who is guilty but who actually needs help most and how we can manage to handle it all together.
Gaining traction globally, the approach dives into the complex nature of climate change beyond carbon markets and focuses on what is most relevant. For example, excessive focus on large-scale projects aimed at reducing risks may reduce societal resilience by putting too much emphasis on the protection of infrastructure and other valuable assets. And preparedness measures that are too rigid may create new vulnerabilities while constraining potentials for future action.
Thus, it is not only about how fast we respond but rather about developing our collective adaptive capacity and responsivity to new climate challenges as they come. Juhola says that such deeper engagement with the concept of responsibility can improve real-life collaboration on climate adaptation. By effectively combining those different ways to frame responsibility we might ultimately attain much better outcomes that by simply asking “who is responsible?”.