Climate change and sustainable development: narratives and altruism

The constant irruption of extreme events alerts us to a future of great uncertainty.

Humanity is going through a critical moment, the constant irruption of extreme events alerts us to a future of great uncertainty. This situation leads us to decide “in the dark”, without adequately understanding the context we are facing or what the future effects of our actions are.

Many of the measures we adopt follow a narrative, as this allows us to provide an explanation for an event. For example, stocks or bonds are bought because investors believe that asset prices will continue to rise. Robert J. Shiller, Nobel laureate in economics in 2013, highlighted the importance of narrative in economic decision making. Indeed, a description can lead us to the wrong decisions, as Shiller points out when explaining financial exuberance. This does not invalidate the role of the narrative, although it warns against those who propagate providential messages.

In order to face uncertainty, we ultimately elaborate our actions around a certain referential narrative, an aspect that was also highlighted by the Nobel Prize winner in economics in 2002, Daniel Kahneman. In the absence of certainty, the narrative appears. However, it is also true that stories coexist, often contradictory.

Economists should recognize the limitations and flaws of their models. They should look for these to serve to understand reality and not to try to adjust it to the precepts dictated by the pseudo-theory. We must recognize the limits of the current canonical model and begin to understand the limits of the planet.

In terms of climate, there is a direct relationship between the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere and the increase in the global average temperature. In the scientific field, the consensus is categorical, but the oil industry denied this effect for years, then tried to hide its responsibility and is currently trying to delay the transition with technological promises.

Stories coexist, although scientific evidence supports one view. This forces us to recreate the climate narrative and strengthen our story so that it triggers change. The communication of the problem is essential and (un)fortunately the constant and increasing occurrence of extreme phenomena serve to highlight these fundamentals.

Uncertainty also raises the importance of strengthening ties and betting on the common benefit. This contradicts the neoliberal model that shows a narrow vision of man as a selfish being and where society does not exist. Such is the message of M. Thatcher that still lives on in the minds of the leaders of our region and that, as many political scientists point out, ended up inducing the rise of the extreme right in the world.

The stories, when unfounded, behave like fashions. In a posthumous book, anthropologist David Graever documents some egalitarianism in societies of the Upper Paleolithic period (30,000 to 50,000 years ago). Other authors come to refute this discovery with accounts of primitive societies in which man was the wolf of man. The possibility of facing uncertainty was one of the first reasons that explained the emergence of altruism and different cultures began to reward those who behaved appropriately and punish those who did not.

The extractivist discourse, whether neoliberal or neodevelopmental, denies the urgency of the moment to justify new oil projects. According to the official Argentine story, developing Vaca Muerta will allow progress towards a “clean” transition, ignoring, however, the multiple studies that warn about its impacts.

The countries of the region are not primarily responsible for the greenhouse effect, but they are not minor players either. It would also be necessary to analyze the sectors that up to now have benefited from the extractive model, the little spillover that it generates towards the most marginalized sectors. We must go towards a new development model and begin to walk an energy transition that benefits the furthest behind, that empowers society.

Fortunately, a new story emerges in the region that transcends the (false) crack. The environmental discourse is gaining followers among the political class and leaderships are emerging that combine the cry for social justice of the democratic left with the recognition of the limits of the planet. Either the speech of Colombian President Gustavo Petro at the United Nations or the presence of Marina Silva, together with Lula, after the electoral victory.

New narratives are required, as well as moving forward with policies that favor the common good. We are in a moment of emergency, as the time to limit the average temperature increase to 1.5°C is running out. If we don’t act, and soon, towards the end of the century, the average temperature will rise by 2.8°C. We are headed for catastrophe, such is the message of António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, that some political leaders prefer not to hear.

Copyright and Clarín, 2022

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Climate change and sustainable development: narratives and altruism