Nobelist Karen O’Brien delivers lecture about climate change and society
November 11, 2021
“Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.”
Ever since the saying took roots in the 1970s, recycling has become one of the many ways to care for the earth and reduce the adverse effects of global change. But is that one action enough to make a real difference? How much influence do we really have on the future of our planet?
According to Karen O’Brien, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo in Norway, it’s all a matter of perspective and holistic action.
“We need to approach complex and urgent global challenges, such as climate change, from a different perspective,” said O’Brien. “Climate change is more than just an environmental problem. It's about how we relate to each other, how we relate to nature, how we relate to the future, and how we relate to change itself.”
In 2007, O’Brien shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Al Gore Jr. for “their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.”
On Oct. 25, O’Brien spoke about global change and social science with the Virginia Tech community in the Steger Hall auditorium at the Fralin Life Sciences Institute. She is an internationally recognized expert who has studied a wide range of scientific and social topics, including the effects of climate change and the interaction with globalization and the consequences for the vulnerability of human security. She also offered solutions for adaptation and holistic action.
Laura Zanotti, a professor in the Department of Political Science in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences at Virginia Tech, whose work addresses the relevance of quantum physics paradigms for reimagining ethics, hosted O’Brien.
“Dr. O’Brien’s work demonstrates the potential of quantum social sciences for re-thinking the way we inhabit the world and for inspiring imaginative and holistic approaches to climate change. Her visit to Virginia Tech generated interest across disciplinary boundaries, and set the stage for what we hope will be a continuing productive collaboration,” said Zanotti.
Climate scientists are routinely examining relationships as part of their research. They are particularly interested in the differences across Earth’s spheres, or the subsystems that make up planet Earth, such as the air in the atmosphere, the life in the biosphere, and the water in the hydrosphere. However, scientists have given little attention to one sphere in particular: human consciousness and humanity’s relationship to the environment.
“We were thrilled to have Dr. O’Brien visit and lecture at Virginia Tech and inspire thoughtful conversations and possible collaborations across transdisciplinary boundaries,” said Daniel Sui, vice president for research and innovation at Virginia Tech. “As we have seen, combating climate change is a multi-pronged and interdisciplinary effort. With the rate at which climate change is occurring, we must consider new strategies to tackle these challenges with climate science swiftly and effectively.”
O’Brien underscored that we must have a sustainable, long-term plan that will have an impact on the entire planet, regardless of a country’s income status or its constituents.
“This brings us to some really core issues when we're talking about planetary sustainability,” said O’Brien. “If we are taking science seriously, we need to be taking social change seriously, too. We need to find new ways to transform our planet in an equitable, ethical, and sustainable manner.”
“Transformation” is quickly becoming a key buzzword in the scientific and climate change communities. Transformation is described as a major physical or qualitative change, similar to how a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. However, according to Monica Sharma, who is trained as a physician and epidemiologist, transformation can also be described as “a powerful unleashing of human potential to affect change for a better life.”
Using Sharma’s idea of transformation, O’Brien and another collaborator, Linda Sygna, developed the “Three Spheres of Transformation,” which involve the practical, political, and personal dimensions of transformative change. Much like the three branches of the United States, the spheres are their own entities, but they work together to form a whole.
Within the practical sphere, transformations are made through enhancing knowledge and expertise, promoting innovation, and changing behavior. The personal sphere, on the other hand, contains ideas, values, worldviews, and paradigms that impact attitudes and actions. Finally, the political sphere involved the larger systems, structures, and political processes that define the conditions for change.
But O’Brien said responses to climate change are focusing too much on the specifics that lie within the practical sphere, and too little on the political and the personal spheres. In other words, we need a more holistic approach.
“What we see is that we're not actually bending any curves,” said O’Brien. “We’re not actually making the significant types of changes that we need to make. That’s often because we're ignoring the systems and all of the other social transformations that either facilitate those practical changes or stop them from happening.”
O’Brien said that altering the way we think about climate change is one approach to enact real change. To do so, we all need a crash course in quantum theory.
When physicists were studying particles in the 1920s, they noticed that they were jumping around and acting far stranger than theorized. Those close observations forced them to rethink the nature of matter, revise their notions of cause and effect, and reshape their ideas of reality itself. Thus, quantum theory was born. Quantum is the idea that when we zoom in on the smallest pieces of something — like photons and electrons — we can see new and unexpected relationships that we did not see before. These new relationships then make us rethink the structures and theories that we have been led to follow or believe.
Quantum can, of course, exist outside of the atom. Language is a form of quantum that we use every day without even realizing it. The words we choose to explain climate change have a great deal of influence on how we interpret facts and ideas. By altering the way we talk about climate change, we can create a different reality and present a different, more optimistic story.
But how can we use quantum to rethink global change?
O’Brien said that it begins with acknowledging that we are both a whole and a part of a quantum system and that we matter far more than we realize. We also need to recognize that what we do now has an impact on future generations and individuals on the other side of the globe.
“This is much more than one person deciding to stop buying clothes, or eating a plant-based diet, or not driving,” said O’Brien. “We need to recognize that our impacts have a ripple effect on everyone around us.”
O’Brien hopes to inspire more people through her Oslo-based company called cCHANGE, which she co-founded. It is a beacon for individuals and organizations seeking a new perspective, inspiration, knowledge, and tools on climate change and sustainability transformations.
The event was sponsored by the Department of Political Science, the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, the Institute for Policy and Governance, the Global Change Center, the Fralin Life Sciences Institute, the Community Change Collaborative, and the Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation.
O'Brien was interviewed for the Institute for Policy and Governance’s Community Change Collaborative’s Trustees without Borders podcast series. You can view the video below or listen to it on Soundcloud.
Written by Kendall Daniels