1st Edition

Liberalism and the Challenge of Climate Change

By Christopher Shaw Copyright 2024
    148 Pages
    by Routledge

    148 Pages
    by Routledge

    In this book Christopher Shaw analyses how liberalism has shaped our understanding of climate change and how liberalism is legitimated in the face of a crisis for which liberalism has no answers.

    The language and symbolism we use to make sense of climate change arose in the post-World War II liberal institutions of the West. This language and symbolism, in neutralising the philosophical and ideological challenge climate change poses to the legitimacy of free market liberalism, has also closed off the possibility of imagining a different kind of future for humanity. The book is structured around a repurposing of the ‘guardrail’ concept, commonly used in climate science narratives to communicate the boundary between safe and dangerous climate change. Five discursive ‘guardrails’ are identified, which define a boundary between safe and dangerous ideas about how to respond to climate change. The theoretical treatment of these issues is complemented with data from interviews with opinion-formers, decision-makers and campaigners, exploring what models of human nature and political possibilities guide their approach to the politics of climate change governance.

    This book will be of great interest to students and scholars of climate change, liberal politics, environmental communication and environmental politics and philosophy, in general.




    Five liberal climate guardrails

    The liberal language of climate change

    Definitions of liberalism

    Geographical focus

    Why liberalism’s time is up on climate change

    The structure of this book


    Chapter 1. The struggles of climate liberalism

    1.1 Sublimating paradox

    1.2 The best of all possible worlds, the worst of all possible worlds

    1.3 Freedom from, or freedom to?

    1.4 Anarchy and order

    1.5 Openness to new ideas vs the reproduction of liberalism

    1.6 The five liberal climate guardrails

    1.7 Conclusion

    Chapter 2: Climate change is not a challenge to individualism.

    2.1 A visit to the circus

    2.2 Creating the climate individual

    2.3 The search for individual free will

    2.4 Hegemonic climate communication

    2.5 Conclusion

    Chapter 3. The liberal construction of climate change is universally relevant.

    3.1 Guardrail 2: The liberal construction of climate change is universally relevant.

    3.2 Institutional norms and the liberal imperialism of climate change

    3.3 The communication of liberal institutional norms in climate discourses

    3.4 Climate targets and the communication of liberal norms

    3.5 The denial of uncertainty and the denial of climate justice

    3.6 Local experiences of a global phenomenon

    3.7 Conclusion

    Chapter 4: Climate change is not an historical phenomenon.

    4.1 Removing history from the climate debate

    4.2 De-historicising the transformation

    4.3 Removing the working class from the transformation

    4.4 Intellectuals and the de-historicising of climate change

    4.5 Living with the past

    4.6 Conclusion

    Chapter 5. Guardrail 4: Climate change will be solved through technological innovation.

    5.1 Substituting technology for progress

    5.2 Science against democracy

    5.3 Selling technological responses to climate change

    5.4 Conclusion

    Chapter 6: Climate Guardrail 5: Sustainable lifestyles will emerge from the appropriate cultural cues and leadership.

    6.1: Stories, myths and other fairy tales

    6.2 Can new stories create new worlds?

    6.3 Culture as control

    6.4 Creating orderly transitions through stories

    6.5 Eden 2.0: Climate Change and the Search for a 21st Century Myth.

    6.6 What We Think About When We Try Not to Think about Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action.

    6.7 Conclusion

    Chapter 7: Maybe tomorrow

    7.1 Interview methodology

    7.2 Results from the interview analysis

    7.2.1 Freely choosing a future of fewer freedoms

    7.2.2 The individual’s role in creating the conditions for a system of fossil fuel free exploitation

    7.2.3. Searching for mushrooms

    7.2.4 Keep your head down whilst waiting for the change to come

    7.2.5. Substituting politics with science and technology

    7.2.6 Talking climate

    7.2.7 So much to do, such little time

    7.2.8 Waiting for politicians

    7.2.9 What’s the problem?

    7.2.10 It’s not just the climate

    7.3 Conclusion

    Chapter 8: Conclusion: What future?

    8.1 Is there a there there?

    8.2 The limits of the individual in a world of limits

    8.3 You shall have no other gods but science

    8.4 We can’t do this on our own

    8.5 A peasant prospect



    Christopher Shaw is Head of Research at Climate Outreach, and also holds the positions of Research Associate in the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex, and Director of DeSmog. Dr Shaw has worked in the field of climate change communication for over 15 years.

    "In Liberalism and the Challenge of Climate Change, Chris Shaw effectively, provocatively but accessibly, demolishes the cosy consensus that political and economic liberalism is capable of responding to the existential threat of climate change. With their emphasis on individualism, protecting the freedoms of capital, the primary of western scientific thought and faith in technological fixes, dominant liberal ideologies are having to confront their own crises and contradictions. This book expertly surveys and critiques these belief systems and imaginaries before exploring some of their contenders. It will be of interest to a range of students, scholars and practitioners working on climate change."

    Peter Newell, University of Sussex and Research Director of the Rapid Transition Alliance

    "Chris Shaw's essential and urgent book addresses the failure and fundamental inadequacy of current attempts to address the climate crisis. With disquieting clarity, he demonstrates how even well-intentioned participants in projects for preserving a livable planet are trapped within conceptual frameworks or paradigms that a priori prevent the emergence of meaningful strategies for averting catastrophe."

    Jonathan Crary, Meyer Schapiro Professor of Modern Art and Theory, Columbia University, New York

    "Words fail us when confronted with the challenges posed by climate change. Deeds fail us as well. As Chris Shaw demonstrates in this book, we are trapped in an ideological network spun by liberalism. This makes us blind to alternative and more radical ways of approaching climate change from a less individualistic and more communitarian perspective. This book should be read by anybody interested in understanding the climate change impasse in which the world finds itself. Understanding it is a precondition to moving beyond it." 

    Brigitte Nerlich, Emeritus Professor of Science, Language and Society, University of Nottingham

    "Chris Shaw is steeped in the sociology and politics of climate change. In this book he argues elegantly and powerfully across a range of areas that climate change is intertwined with liberalism and that this blocks any solution to the climate crisis." 

    Luke Martell, Author of Alternative Societies: For a Pluralist Socialism