Rob Imrie, Visiting Professor, Goldsmiths University of London

For the last twenty years and more there has been a proliferation of statements predicting the irreversibility of climate change, and its deleterious effects on people and nature. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2014: 26) has suggested that such effects, ranging from extreme precipitation and flooding to intense heat waves, might be mitigated by, amongst other things, the development of ‘effective institutions and governance’. This statement, about the efficacy of governance, is widely accepted by many policy and academic communities, and it is common place to assert that social and ecological problems associated with climate change can be resolved if appropriate systems of governance are developed and implemented. This understanding has spawned a proliferation of research projects occupying the time of thousands of researchers seeking to describe and evaluate a multifarious range of governance initiatives, ranging from transnational municipal networks to urban living labs.

While this research is not without value, it is part of an orthodoxy that rarely questions what governance is, or how it might be part of the problem and not the solution to climate change and its effects on society and environment. The research forms part of a paradigm that frames what the questions are to be asked, what issues are to be observed, what methods are to be used, while accepting, as its central proposition, that the effects of climate change, and its causes, can be overcome by recourse to procedural and process-based interventions or, in other words, the deployment of ‘good governance’. The mantra of ‘good governance’ perpetuates elite oligarchic networks that, in Eagleton-Pierce’s (2014) terms, are seeking ‘to manage problems of legitimacy within relations of power’. Here, governance networks are enmeshed within a ‘politics of growth’ that, while accepting that economic production and consumption are implicated in humans’ impact on climate and environment, rejects any fundamental, structural, changes to the nature of capitalism.

The governance of climate change is constructed around what Fry (1999: 12) refers to as de-futuring or ‘undermining viable human futures through our contemporary modes of habitation’. Such modes, and the socio-cultural and economic values that underpin them, are not the target of paradigmatic governance because they are the bedrock of the social and political order. Rather, paradigmatic governance is defined by its status quo formations or institutional apparatus that mis-recognise the problems of climate change as solvable by technical and managerial interventions into complex socio-political and human problems. Such governance is predicated on extending the reach of the market as the purveyor of solutions to environmental crises, but in doing so, serves only to exacerbate problems. This rationality presides over the governance of climate change effects, including, for example, the illogicality of setting up recycling and waste industries that, for their sustenance, depend on the (re) production of waste and wastefulness, or the perpetuation of practices that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

The defuturing mentalities of paradigmatic governance naturalise and legitimise specific social functions and relations, such as the centrality of the automobile in everyday life, and perpetuate a universalist discourse that rarely identifies how climate change is intertwined with diverse social subjectivities and identities. The former enables one of the biggest polluters, the automobile, to more or less remain unchallenged, the latter does little to acknowledge that climate change has iniquitous outcomes, or impacts that vary depending on people’s position in relation to social class, ethnicity, gender, disability, and other identity groupings.  The recourse of paradigmatic governance to instrumental systems of management also leads to the setting of arbitrary, usually unattainable, targets aimed at reducing the effects of climate change, such as the reduction in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The problem here is that toxic emissions are usually seen as the causes of climate change rather than symptomatic, consequentially encouraging governance activities that are mis-directed and can only fail.

The liberalising rationalities of paradigmatic governance offer no more than palliatives to the profound effects of climate change, and do not recognise, or acknowledge, the vested interests of elite, corporate, organisation in smoke screening the impacts of human lifestyles on the planet. Paradigmatic governance offers no more than a culture of weak legal directives that are rarely enforced, and target setting that is barely creditable in relation to the scale of climate-related problems. Paradigmatic governance is invariably contradictory and self-interested, and usually supplants one problem with another. Thus, in the UK, the drive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is, in part, related to the decommissioning of coal powered generators, but this policy is contradicted by the rise in fracking that, as Douglas Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace has characterized as illogical by noting that ‘it is entirely unclear to me how digging up more gas helps’ (quoted in Yeo, 2013: 1).

There is a need for what Fry (1999) refers to as ‘re-directive’ practices that enable the radical politicisation of climate change and its effects, in ways whereby paradigmatic governance is supplanted and new social and cultural imaginaries of a world not in thrall to economic growth are established. This is to challenge the redistributive and human consequences of climate change, recognizing that no amount of tinkering with governance structures will redress the deeply iniquitous ways in which the world’s poor and disenfranchised are suffering, disproportionately, from the de-futuring practices of contemporary consumption and production. There is a need to challenge the rationality of a ‘world without end’, or those who propagate that we can continue to drive motor vehicles, fly around the world, and build and construct on our green spaces, while, simultaneously, averting the human and ecological consequences of climate change.


Eagleton-Pierce, M. (2014). The concept of governance in the spirit of capitalism, Critical Policy Studies, 8, 1, 5-21.

Fry, T. (1999). A new design philosophy: an introduction to defuturing. Sydney: UNSW Press.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (2014), Climate Change, 2014: Fifth Assessment Report, IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland.

Yeo, S., (2013). Fracking will increase CO2 emissions without global climate deal, Climate Home, September 9th, 2013.


Photo credit: Flickr/Hillman54

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