Updated: Sep 15, 2021
When I am feeling permeable to the world, contemplating the losses of climate change reliably makes me cry. What gets me isn’t imagining the losses themselves–-disappearing species, changed ecosystems, flooded homes, displaced communities–-but imagining people mourning in the aftermath. We all know how it is to more sharply feel the contours of something we love in its absence; I imagine that feeling magnified, multiplied over billions of lives and accumulated through time, and it is staggering.
I suspect that it is a similar awareness of climate loss that makes communities around me so wary of talking about climate opportunity. It’s understandable. 'Opportunity', when mentioned in the context of climate change in particular, reliably connotes a blind eye turned toward personal responsibility and others’ suffering in pursuit of economic gain.
I think, for instance, of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s comments this spring in front of the Arctic Council. '[T]he Arctic is at the forefront of opportunity and abundance', he declared. 'It houses 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil, 30% of its undiscovered gas, and an abundance of uranium, rare earth metals, gold, diamonds, and millions of miles of untapped resources.' He proceeded to praise the shipping and military opportunities presented by 'steady reductions in sea ice'.
Pompeo’s framing of climate opportunity is not only disrespectful, it’s immoral. It implies that we should celebrate when those who have profited off the creation of climate change profit further from new climate conditions. It reinforces the idea that the only opportunities that count are of an economic nature and that they belong to those with power and capital. And perhaps most poignantly, it shrugs off any responsibility for climate losses already felt and climate losses to come.
When circumstances create a new continuum of possibility, we’re usually choosy about which parts we call opportunity. Why should the definition of climate opportunity be any different? Climate-concerned folks tend to shy away from the language of opportunity altogether, but what might it look like to collaboratively pin down what we want it to mean in the context of climate change?
I have been asking these questions in part because I think that the language we use shapes what is possible on personal and cultural levels, but also because I am from Alaska, a place where both climate loss and opportunity are bearing down fast.
Most people are familiar with a handful of Alaska's climate losses (we are the land glaciers and polar bears after all). The headliners this summer included the relocation of Newtok, a climate-threatened village in Western Alaska, and the widespread death of salmon in water that was too warm to hold sufficient dissolved oxygen.
The same warming trend melting ice and warming water has been steadily lengthening Alaska’s growing season. This has been a significant contributing factor leading to a 30% increase in small farms across the state over the past 5 years, the majority less than 10 acres and run by women. Over the same period, the value of food sold direct from Alaska farms to Alaskan consumers has more than doubled from US$2.1 million to US$4.5 million. By most standards, these trends embody a constructive seizing of climate opportunity.
But clear climate opportunities are difficult to come by, and we are often faced with more ambiguous fields of possibility. In Alaska, the oil and gas industry supports a third of our jobs and supplies about 85% of the state government’s unrestricted budget. If global climate action results in a shrinking fossil fuel industry, how will we navigate the resulting economic and political void? Choosing which new possibilities to call opportunities is a value judgement and an endorsement, and accordingly, to call something an opportunity is to expose those vulnerable parts of ourselves to the world.
When exploring for myself what I might consider a climate opportunity, I’ve repeatedly been returning to two questions. First, will acting on a new possibility amplify climate change and its associated loss? Secondly, will realizing this new possibility benefit those bearing the brunt of climate loss? I’ve been imagining these questions defining the axes of a field of possibility. If I imagine this field as a graph, a possibility at the origin is one that actively mitigates climate change and exclusively benefits those bearing climate loss. For me, this would be the easiest kind of possibility to label as opportunity, but it’s hard to find real situations that land right there.
Figure 1. This graph visualizes the described framework for spatializing possibilities based on their climate-forcing character and their benefit flows. This spatialization enables personal exploration of how our morals map onto real-world possibilities. It also provides a toehold for conversation about how to define climate opportunity. To me, the zone shaded green in the bottom left roughly delineates morally unambiguous 'opportunity'. The zones bounded by grey dashes are morally ambiguous and ripe for examination. The white zone in the upper right–which we could call the Pompeo zone–contains possibilities that I am uncomfortable calling opportunities.
As you move up along the y-axis, possibilities become neutral in their climate impacts, then become amplifiers of climate change. If you imagine actions arrayed vertically along the y-axis, active carbon sequestration would be near the bottom and fossil fuel extraction near the top.
As you move from left to right along the x-axis, the benefits of a respective action redistribute from those facing climate loss to those who are climate insulated. You can imagine moving an action horizontally by changing its primary actor or beneficiary. Carbon sequestration would lie in the bottom left if its market growth was creating tangible opportunity for climate-vulnerable communities, but would shift to the bottom right if the top players continued to be ExxonMobil and Shell.
Graphs and frameworks are necessarily imperfect; they are meant to simplify and sign-post, to give us toeholds from which we can clamber our way into greater complexity. In this undeniably reductionist framework, the complexity lies in the fact that placing a real-world possibility within this field requires subjective judgement. Our y-axis placement reflects our understanding of climate forcing dynamics, which in turn is dependent on the assumptions and previous knowledge we bring to technical analysis. Our x-axis placement reflects our understanding about loss and benefit, and is predicated on our inescapably subjective worldviews and values.
In sociology, a boundary object is something that helps people or groups translate their viewpoints to one another. Rather than providing a clear classification of which possibilities are climate opportunities and which are not, I imagine using this framework as a visual boundary object to facilitate conversations about climate opportunity. 'Where on this graph would you place a possibility', you might ask, 'and are you comfortable calling it an opportunity?' This framework offers a way to automatically re-orient conversation to the intuition that it’s important to pay attention to loss and responsibility. It also gives seemingly-aligned parties the opportunity to explore how their moral maps differ.
Frameworks are only tools, though, and this one leaves out a whole host of relevant questions: Who holds the power to place themselves where on the axis of loss and gain? How do we compare possibilities of different types, from economic to cultural to political? Which possibilities are part of zero-sum games, which aren’t, and how does that change our consideration?
Given these omissions, defining climate opportunity begins to feel risky in its own right. Is it worth its potential exploitation by profiteers like Mike Pompeo? I think it is. The language of opportunity is a powerful thing to wield. Using narratives of opportunity is a time-honored strategy for building broader coalitions. It’s enticing and it’s confident, and right now folks on the other side of climate concern are capturing its power to a much greater extent than we are. If climate-concerned folks can identify climate opportunities together, and with care, we can capture that power without compromising our respect for climate loss or the appropriate grief that comes along with it.
Beyond building coalitions in a way that preserves our integrity, using the language of opportunity may offer positive personal and communal effects. Climate-concerned folks primarily talk about climate change mitigation and adaptation as categories of possible action. While seizing climate opportunity is certainly a form of climate adaptation, actively using the language of opportunity comes with a notably different tone: Adaptation is a forced action; seizing opportunity is an empowered one.
To keep chasing mitigation and adaptation with an honest understanding of our odds of success, I think we need every shred of empowerment we can get. Facing down climate change is a feat of endurance, and people need fuel to persist in a struggle which will be measured in decades. Being able to celebrate and chase carefully defined climate opportunities could offer a powerful (and sustainable) source of fuel.
It takes self-awareness and maturity to make small changes that better enable us to pursue that which we think is good. In our personal lives, these changes are often quiet shifts in how we act, understand things, or describe the world, and they can make a remarkable difference. Reconsidering how we do or don’t use the language of climate opportunity could be such a shift for climate-concerned individuals and communities. As Rachel Carson, the incomparable author of Silent Spring, said in 1962, 'Yours is a grave and sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.' Let us rise to the task: climate loss and climate opportunity need not be pitted against each other.
Freya Chay is about to graduate with an M.S. in Earth Systems from Stanford University. She's looking forward to going home to Alaska, where climate change is one of many factors promising a fascinating next few decades.
Artwork by Sapphire Deanna
This article is an online feature of Anthroposphere Issue V. If you like what you've just read, please support Anthroposphere by buying one of our beautifully designed physical copies here. All proceeds go towards printing, designing and maintaining our publication, and your contributions will help keep our climate journalism interdisciplinary and accessible for all.