World Environment Day: Changing the paradigm of climate science

Technologically exciting solutions alone will not shift the paradigm of power

Extinction Rebellion activists hold a funeral for COP26 at the Necropolis, Glasgow, UK, 13 November 2021
Extinction Rebellion activists hold a funeral for COP26 at the Necropolis, Glasgow, UK, 13 November 2021

Arun Maira

Global climate change is running ahead of the solutions to mitigate it.

Climate scientists are fixated on reducing carbon emissions to prevent further densification of the atmosphere’s carbon layer, which is causing global warming.

Since they first met in Berlin in 1995, national governments have met 28 times, most recently at COP28 in Dubai in 2023. Every time they meet, climate scientists raise further alarms. And the solutions are not keeping pace.

Why? Because modern climate science is an incomplete science.

Climate scientists are overly focused on the physical and chemical system in which they want to improve the circulation of energy and materials. Whereas changes must be made simultaneously in the economic and political system, to increase the circulation of wealth and power, which is presently concentrated in the richest countries and the richest people.

The physics and chemistry of climate change is driven by Einstein’s formula, e = mc2. Energy and materials in different forms can be converted into each other.

Overall, the material and energy content of any closed system is in balance. In the last century, economic productivity and growth and the improvement of living standards have become increasingly dependent on the use of carbon and hydrocarbon sources of energy, which take aeons to renew. Therefore, other sources of energy must be found, as must ways of reducing hydrocarbon use.

Changes in lifestyles and production systems are essential to reduce carbon emissions.

Also necessary is the substitution of non-renewable with renewable energy, especially solar, which brings new energy into the earth’s system every day.

Hydro and wind energy, which do not require any material to be converted into energy—only conversion of energy from one form to another—do not deplete the planet’s material resources.

Nuclear energy, which derives energy from matter, has great risks associated with disposal of toxic wastes. Hydrocarbon energy makes the atmosphere toxic; nuclear energy may make the ground toxic for centuries.

Physicists are not concerned with the distribution of wealth and power in social systems. However, changes in forms of energy used in products and production systems require changes in economic structures. There will accordingly be winners and losers amongst industries and amongst nations as well.

The largest and most profitable industries, which are the greatest beneficiaries of the present paradigm, have the greatest political power.

The most resistance to the paradigm change therefore comes from countries like the US—whose citizens have hydrocarbon-dependent lifestyles, and which also has the largest industries dependent on the production and use of hydrocarbons.

Within countries, the richest people—who have the most energy-dependent lifestyles, with the largest houses, cars and appliances, who travel the most by air for work and leisure—do not feel any urgency to live in harmony with nature. They can afford to buy more gadgets to reduce pollution and keep their homes cooler. However, those gadgets require energy to produce and to run.

Rich people with higher per capita incomes exert more pressure per capita than the poor on the earth and its atmosphere, which are common resources and should be shared equitably.

With greater privatisation of all industries, including banking and financial services, those who have more money call the shots in public policy.

The decision-making power to choose technologies for climate change rests with rich investors, who are least affected personally by climate change and are more concerned with monetary returns on their investments.

Products and solutions from the private sector for the poor require financial investors to extract profit from the bottom for returns on their investments. Thus, wealth continues to flow to the top of the pyramid. The rich get richer. Inequalities in wealth and power increase, further delaying the discovery of equitable solutions for climate change.


The scientific paradigm of climate change has become too narrowly focused on carbon circulation, capping and pricing. It must be broadened in at least four ways.

First, it must be expanded even on the materials and energy side. The circulation of water in various forms on the planet must become more central to the climate model. Water is fundamental for all forms of life. Billions of people have been suffering and dying from scarcity of water and water pollution long before carbon became the overriding concern of climate science and policy in this century.

Secondly, scientists and technologists must understand the planet’s natural systems much better before proposing solutions for governments and investors to adopt.

Nature’s hydrological infrastructure has been destroyed with concrete and steel infrastructure. Hills with natural runoffs flattened, water channels and lakes covered to level land for urban development and highways, the big dams constructed for ‘scientifically’ managing water storage and flow — these all have large and unintended consequences for environmental sustainability.

GDP increases whenever natural infrastructure is replaced by human-made infrastructure. But sustainability of life goes down.

Thirdly, the world needs local systems solutions cooperatively developed and implemented by global and local communities to solve the global climate problem.

Environmental problems are interlinked with livelihood and economic problems everywhere. However, these problems take different shapes in different places. Therefore, ‘one-size-fits-all’ climate solutions cannot be applicable everywhere.

Solutions must be congruent with local realities, and local communities must resolve amongst themselves the give-and-take that systemic solutions always require.

Fourthly, those who produce wealth through their work must accumulate financial wealth themselves and not have to pass it to external investors.

Wealth has been flowing upwards in the last few decades, increasing inequalities.

Moreover, with investors investing mostly in financial ventures, only 15 per cent of funds generated in the financial sector have been going to businesses in the non-financial sector, according to Rana Foroohar in Makers and Takers (2016).

A change in the paradigm of political power is essential for sustainable solutions to humanity’s existential problem of climate change. Climate solutions which may be technologically exciting and investor enriching will not change the paradigm of power. People at the bottom of the pyramid must accumulate more wealth and power.

Cooperative forms of economic enterprises, in which local producers are also the owners, are required to ensure that wealth circulates locally and is reinvested for the community’s gain.

ARUN MAIRA is a former member of the Planning Commission of India. Courtesy: The Billion Press

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines