Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/Power in climate action

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Climate action is defined as "proactive mitigation and adaptation"[1] strategies taken by any members of society in an effort to combat climate change. Within the disciplines economics, psychology and postcolonial studies, power manifests itself in different and conflicting ways. This causes problems when trying to coordinate climate action, which is an immediate interdisciplinary crisis prevalent on the world stage. Within economics, money is power; TNC’s and economic giants hold this power and therefore lead the way in regards to climate action. Conversely within psychology, the evolution of human beings has led to power being evident in several cognitive biases which exist in the subconscious thought processes that affect our behavioural outcomes. Postcolonial studies argues that power is manifested in the societies, cultures and peoples of colonising nations and conversely there is an absence of power in ex-colonies.[2] It argues that current events such as climate action are a present-day manifestation of these colonial inequalities.

Postcolonial studies[edit]

Within global attempts to mitigate climate change, international treaties pressure developing economies and ex-colonies such as India to reduce carbon emissions.[3] According to ‘Climate Action Tracker’, which collates data from these treaties, the UK has made ‘Insufficient’ actions to keep to the 2 °C target, whereas India’s actions are ‘Compatible’.[4] This demonstrates how ex-colonies are pressured to take responsibility to cut their emissions by former imperial powers, even though they are not the cause of the problem.

The concept of power within postcolonial studies can present problems of intersectionality for certain groups.[5] This is highlighted by the practical mitigation strategies chosen by colonising nations. According to Project Drawdown's list of solutions, female education is the sixth most important factor in stopping climate change, ranking higher than solar panels and electric cars.[6] Moreover, with every year a girl is in education, climate resilience in the country increases by a factor of 3.2, according to the ND-GAIN Index.[7] Investment in female education will improve lives in less economically developed ex- colonies. However, there is a lack of knowledge and investment around this solution. A Postcolonial scholar would argue that this is because western colonial powers, where female education is not an issue, drive the discussion on climate action.[8]

Within the public sphere, postcolonialism’s definition of power can be identified within the extinction rebellion movement. The movement is considered by some to be eurocentric in its agenda and is being called on to ‘Decolonise’.[9] Additionally, the recent declaration of a climate emergency is seen to undermine what indigenous people and people in the global south have already been experiencing. This demonstrates imperial inequality; people in colonising nations are a voice for those in ex-colonies, who are denied the power to declare this emergency on the same international scale.


Economics is a powerful factor linked to climate change. It is an arm wrestling between money and the environment. Protecting the environment costs money through regulations on fossil fuels (carbon tax [10] ) for example, policies and norms such as the Clean Air Act [11] or the Clean Water Act [12].

For some countries, the regulations can be more costly because of their geography. Some can be blessed with ample hydro electric resources while others sit on a massive pile of cheaply extracted coal. It goes as well for countries that naturally have more sun, wind... For example, it will be incredibly costly and inefficient if Russia goes for a solar source of power.

The ultimate dilemma would be the Saudis that have the world sunniest location and at the same time, they sit on top of the world's largest oil reserve.

Those costs are designed to alter people's behaviour. Doing so voluntarily because of one's conviction about climate action is much harder, because it consists eventually of reducing the consumption of goods such as plastic, living in colder room temperature at home or giving up on air conditioning during summer. As Jeremy Grantham, co-founder of global investment manager GMO wrote "We face a form of capitalism that has hardened its focus to short-term profit maximisation with little or no apparent interest in social good" [13].

Economics is at the base of all decision making. It is hard to convince people that additional cost today should be seen as an investment for the future generations, it is also utopian to believe that large corporations will trade their quarterly profits for a badge of honour on climate action. It is equally difficult to expect emerging economies trying to pull their population out of poverty to start acting in a noble fashion to protect the environment.


Climate psychology is the study of the thought processes behind the action, or inaction, taken on climate change[14]. The discipline of evolutionary psychology provides many explanations as to why the majority of people are slow or even refuse to act upon the crisis of climate change. So significant are these factors, that the psychology around climate change has now become a major factor impeding the progress of climate action[15].

As a result of evolution, humans - historically a hunter-gatherer species - are susceptible to ‘veridical perception’; a difficulty in perceiving the size or severity of a situation, because the human brain is predisposed to react to short-term or immediate risks with high impacts, such as being chased by a predator[16]. Additionally, humans also have a cognitive bias towards the experience of loss called ‘temporal discounting’, meaning that from an emotional point of view, the loss of something in the present is more significant than the gain of something equally as valuable in the future, so there is a power struggle between rationality and the evolved human psychology[17][18].

In order for behavioural change around environmental decisions to occur, people must be made aware of both ‘temporal discounting’ and ‘veridical perception’, so that actions with delayed rewards are taken, and steps are taken to fully comprehend the severity of the climate crisis. Research also shows that people have a tendency to spatially discount events, where they assume that the effects of climate change disproportionately affect countries other than their own, adding to the misconception that the climate crisis is distant and insignificant[19]. This plays on the power imbalances fuelled by national and political rhetoric that promote an overestimated sense of security.


According to psychology, power in climate action emerges from cognitive processes within individuals, whereas in economics, it is contained within economic relationships and transactions between international bodies. These concepts limit the ability of the two disciplines to communicate on climate action because of their different spatial scales; economists do not accept that irrational processes within the individual often hold power over environmentally detrimental economic activity. Postcolonial studies adheres with psychology because both have a 'grassroots' conception of power, which argues that small communities could have the capability to mitigate, should they be given the power. However, heeding economics, it also understands power on a larger scale: economic giants hold the power over climate action, but there are historical reasons relating to colonialism behind this. Therefore, postcolonial studies bridges the gap between these two disciplines and may allow them to communicate.


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