Blame games won’t help us address the climate crisis by Lize Swartz

The climate crisis is forcing us to rethink our relationship with the world around us and the effect of our own actions (or inaction) on this massive collective action problem. Blame games are becoming a dangerous diversion tactic used to deny responsibility for our own role in the crisis by blaming others for causing it, writes Lize Swartz. Recent developments in the Netherlands and beyond reveal just how far we still have to go to acknowledge the climate crisis as a collective action problem and to rethink our own role as natural resource users in addressing the crisis.

Crises are often associated with the polarization of different interest groups through the politicization of crises and crisis responses due to the uncertainty they cause and the inevitability of change they come to signify. The global climate crisis is no different: it is arguably the biggest collective action dilemma we as humankind have had to face, generating massive uncertainty about the impacts of a changing climate, and making it clear that radical change is necessary. We now have to come to terms with the fact that we have a very limited time in which to reverse the effects of the damaging development trajectory we have collectively subscribed to over the last centuries on the climate—something we are very hesitant to do due to the implications of such radical change for our comfort and quality of life.

As a result, we have started trying to place the blame on each other in order to avoid having to take action ourselves due to the refusal to acknowledge the effect of our own actions on the creation and exacerbation of the crisis. The recent protests in The Hague highlighted cleavages in society resulting from polarizing discourses of who’s to blame that will undermine efforts to address the crisis. Over the past few months, The Hague has become a political battlefield as groups have marched to the political hub of the country to make their voices heard in the struggle to find solutions to the climate crisis on Dutch soil that seems to have paralyzed the country’s political leadership. When Dutch politicians suggested curbing agricultural and building activities to reduce nitrogen emissions, farmers first rolled in en masse on their tractors, followed by those working in the construction sector. Their message was clear: we will not be made scapegoats—others are equally or more guilty and should also have their activities limited. They felt victimized and proceeded to blame other parties for causing the crisis. The blame game seems to be a vicious cycle of receiving, denying and passing on blame.

Similarly, a recent article in a Dutch newspaper claimed that international universities are climate unfriendly because international students take intercontinental flights several times a year to visit their families. The author compared their travel patterns with those of European students, who ‘only’ took intracontinental flights to other European countries for the same reason. And the split between the ‘vegan’ and ‘meat lover’ camps, as if they are opponents in some figurative battle, is well known.

These examples make clear that the climate crisis is polarizing especially those societies discussing it. Through what has become somewhat of a herd mentality, it has become very easy to compare our own behaviour to that of others, finding ourselves superior (we recycle, we don’t own cars) and thus pressuring others to do the same, or simply refusing to acknowledge that our own behaviour is problematic and blaming others because we don’t want to change. The more pressing the problem becomes, and the more apparent the need for radical and immediate change becomes, the more demands seem to be placed on others to change their behaviour.

Collective action needs to move beyond global negotiations

Elinor Ostrom argued in 2010 that climate change is a collective action problem and that no single state should shoulder the burden of having to address it alone (Ostrom 2010). Collective action problems are defined as problems that require a collective effort to address them; individual responses based on individual interests undermine the ability of the collective to address the problem and have negative consequences (Ostrom 2010). The image of two donkeys tugging on a rope comes to mind. When the donkeys attempt to move in opposite directions, the rope becomes taut and neither of them can move. When they move in the same direction, alongside each other, there is no resistance and both can achieve their objective – to graze in peace.

We need the same kind of mentality when attempting to address the climate crisis, and recognizing that climate change is a collective action problem is a first step. Although a strong institutional response is necessary to lead international efforts to combat climate change, we should acknowledge the need for a combined institutional and individual response. Ostrom argued that states should collectively address the crisis, but we as consumers and producers are just as responsible for doing so.

Importantly, before blaming industry for emissions and states for failing to discipline industries, we need to better understand and acknowledge the way in which our own seemingly insatiable appetites for material products and consumables, including for food and water, are feeding our fossil fuel addiction and affecting increased production and emissions. The climate crisis, which fundamentally trails back to our relationship with the world around us and our problematic individual and collective claim on it, demands a different way of life. We will need to take a long, hard look at ourselves and our identity as consumers in order to understand our contribution to the crisis, and we will have to acknowledge this and then collectively define our respective roles in addressing the crisis together. The last thing we need is to stand divided instead of united.

Ostrom, E. (2010) ‘A multi-scale approach to coping with climate change and other collective action problems’, Solutions.

Image Credit: Andol on Wikimedia

16177487_1348685531818526_4418355730312549822_oAbout the author:

Lize Swartz is a PhD researcher at the ISS focusing on water user interactions with sustainability-climate crises in the water sector, in particular the role of water scarcity politics on crisis responses and adaptation processes.


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