CLIMATE change is everywhere. Not only is the physical climate changing, but the idea of climate change is now active across the full range of human endeavours. Climate change has moved from being a predominantly physical phenomenon to being a social one, in the process reshaping the way we think about ourselves, our societies and humanity's place on Earth.
I am primarily a climate scientist who has worked with climate data, models and scenarios. But I am now more interested in how we think and talk about climate change, how we use the idea to support various projects, and how - paradoxically - we could use it to make the world a better place. I argue that just as we need to understand the physical changes that are sweeping the planet, we also need to understand climate change as a cultural and psychological phenomenon.
And it is a phenomenon. Just as the transformation of the physical climate is inescapable, so the idea of climate change is now unavoidable. It is circulating anxiously in the worlds of domestic politics and international diplomacy, and with mobilising force in business, law, academia, development, welfare, religion, ethics, art and celebrity.
Yet in each of these spheres the idea of climate change carries quite different meanings and seems to imply different courses of action. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has constructed a powerful scientific consensus about the physical transformation of the world's climate. This is a reality that I believe in. But there is no comparable consensus about what the idea of climate change actually means. If we are to use the idea constructively, we first need new ways of looking at the phenomenon and making sense of it.
One way I do this is to rethink our discourses about climate change in terms of four enduring myths. I use "myths" not to imply falsehoods but in the anthropological sense - stories we tell that embody deeper assumptions about the world around us.
First is the Edenic myth, which talks about climate change using the language of lament and nostalgia, revealing our desire to return to some simpler, more innocent era. In this myth, climate is cast as part of a fragile natural world that needs to be protected. It shows that we are uneasy with the unsought powers we now have to change the global climate.
Next, the Apocalyptic myth talks about climate in the language of fear and disaster. This myth reveals our endemic worry about the future, but also acts as a call to action.
Then there is the Promethean myth, named after the Greek deity who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to the mortals. This talks about climate as something we must control, revealing our desire for dominance and mastery over nature but also that we lack the wisdom and humility to exercise it.
Finally, the Themisian myth, named after the Greek goddess of natural law and order, talks about climate change using the language of justice and equity. Climate change becomes an idea around which calls for environmental justice are announced, revealing the human urge to right wrongs.
The value in identifying these mythical stories in our discourses about climate change is that they allow us to see climate change not as simply an environmental problem to be solved, but as an idea that is being mobilised in various ways around the world. If we continue to naively understand the climate system as something to be mastered and controlled, then we will have missed the main opportunities offered us by climate change.
From a practical perspective, that means rethinking our responses to climate change. Rather than placing ourselves in a "fight against climate change" we should use the idea of climate change to rethink and renegotiate our wider social and political goals.
How so? For one thing, climate change allows us to examine our projects more closely and more honestly than we have been used to, whether they be projects of trade, community-building, poverty reduction, demographic management, social and psychological health, personal well-being or self-determination. Climate change demands that we focus on the long-term implications of our short-term choices and recognise the global reach of our actions. This means asking both "what is the impact of this project on the climate?" and also "how does the reality of climate change alter how we can achieve this goal?"
Climate change also teaches us to rethink what we really want for ourselves and humanity. The four mythical ways of thinking about climate change reflect back to us truths about the human condition that are both comforting and disturbing. They suggest that even were we to know precisely what we wanted - wealth, communal harmony, social justice or mere survival - we are limited in our abilities to acquire or deliver those goals. www.newscientist.com