Humility: the missing key to climate action?

Anna Palliser's picture

[This post is part of a series offered by IECA members attending COP24 in Katowice, Poland.]

Chui-Ling Tam’s blog of Dec 4th ‘Why we should stop labelling people climate change deniers’ reminded me of a conversation with a Māori freedom diver on South Island New Zealand, several years ago. Many locals were saying the fish stocks in their harbor had declined dramatically because of overfishing but the diver refused to engage with these perspectives. He said the harbor was a strange place and he spoke a lot about Tangaroa, the Māori god of the sea. It was clear he passionately loved the sea and all its lifeforms, and I could not understand the position he took. I was a newcomer to Aotearoa New Zealand at that time, and while I still don’t fully understand, I think I understand better now. I think he considered the number of fish in the harbor was Tangaroa’s business, not ours, that it is arrogant for humans to assume the ability to control such things. Lately, wandering the endless corridors of COP 24 in Poland, I have been thinking about his perspective.

Dr. Mae Jemison, a former NASA astronaut, spoke at a COP 24 opening meeting. She considers it arrogant to speak of saving the earth. Who are we to think the earth needs saving? She pointed out that if changes happen that cause the extinction of humans and many other life forms, this incredible living planet will still continue, changing and evolving new ecosystems over the next few millennia. What we are risking is not the extinction of our planet but self-extinction, of triggering changes that mean we can no longer survive here. From the perspective of the life of a planet, human existence is a millisecond, irrelevant really.

The above perspectives, just like the various perspectives of the Inuit who spoke with Chui-Ling Tam, have things to teach us. We ignore the consideration of diverse perspectives about complex environmental issues at our peril, as post-normal science writing has been arguing for many years [1]. We believe we have calculated that we have only twelve years left to prevent massive harm from climate change [2]. We believe we have worked out what human behavior will prevent catastrophic temperature rises [2]. We believe we may have worked out how to geoengineer the climate, for example adding particles to the stratosphere to offset the effects of greenhouse gases [3]. Perspectives that challenge and add to these positions may bring a tone of humility to our climate action discourses, a humility that seems sadly lacking. Could it be that our obsession with calculating and measuring and our neglect of factors that cannot be calculated, like morals and emotions, have helped to bring us here, to a place where we walk in full awareness towards our own extinction.

Could it be that the humility of many indigenous people, a humility that creates focus on right relationships, between human and human, between human and non-human, a humility that recognizes we don’t have all the answers to the complex environmental problems we are facing, is what we now need? We are gambling in our arrogance, gambling we can find technical fixes such as geoengineering and carbon dioxide sequestration, which will enable a business-as-usual trajectory, gambling that our calculations about how much more we can still pollute are correct. It seems to me that if we don’t manage to adopt a degree of humility about climate change in the next few years, humility about our dependence on this planet and about just how irrelevant our extinction would be in terms of its continuation, that humility will be forced on us in painful ways as we try to cope with the changes we are in process of creating.

[1] : Funtowicz, S., & Ravetz, J. (2003). Post-normal science. International Society for Ecological Economics (ed.), Online Encyclopedia of Ecological Economics at http://www. ecoeco. org/publica/encyc. htm.

[2] :

[3] :


About the Author: 

Dr Anna Palliser is a lecturer in Environmental Management at Southern Institute of Technology, Invercargill, New Zealand. She has attended the last two COP conferences in Bonn (2017) and Poland (2018) as an observer on behalf of IECA.