An Interview with Kellan Anfinson on Climate Change

By Cassandra Betts

What is the link between philosophy and climate change? How does one approach the climate change issue from a perspective other than the scientific one? Where does optimism fit into the picture? What can individual students do when faced with climate change? Kellan Anfinson sat down with the Sundial to explore all these questions and more. The teacher of multiple political theory courses at Sciences Po, Anfinson also teaches a course entitled “The Politics of Climate Change: Representations and Responses.” One of the most sought after courses during IPs, this class approaches climate change from sides beyond the traditional ones, exploring the links between climate change, Christianity, the economy, denial, and violence (to name a few.)

Anfinson, who is trained in political philosophy but has always been interested in environmentalism, started to dive into the issue more deeply for his dissertation, and was inspired by Kierkegaard’s theory of how one comes to believe in God. He asked himself the question: “What would it mean to believe in climate change the way that Kierkegaard believes in God?” From there, he took different concepts from different philosophers, including Nietzsche, and used these concepts to approach the momentous issue of climate change. “I got the idea to see what a class would look like where we try and just see it from a bunch of different sides, and see if some of those speak to us more and if some of those speak to us less. [We can see] where our own personal tipping points are, where we move from knowing about the issue to caring about the issue, or from knowing about the issue to finding our selves involved with the issue.”

Sundial: Talking about getting involved with the issue, it’s a really big issue and kind of daunting, do you think that individual actions do make a difference?

Anfinson: Yeah, definitely. Everything makes a difference. There’s always the question of scale and “a difference to what” but if it makes a difference to you to do one thing rather than another then you’ve already made some kind of difference. Sometimes I’ll talk to people and they’ll be like “well, I’ve become vegetarian or I’ve become vegan for environmental reasons and it produces these very difficult conversations with my family and even bigger problems when I visit my family, especially around the holidays.” I have friends who had to start cooking for themselves when they were twelve years old because their parents refused to accommodate their chosen eating style. And then when something that is a very minor issue in this way (for example saying I don’t want to have whatever cheese or some kind of dairy added to my vegetables) becomes a huge conflict, then you can see that it matters. Even if it doesn’t produce a change, even if it doesn’t convert your whole family, it makes them confront the issue. And when people get angry about it they deny it. And then that can extend all the way up.

You can have really momentous individual actions, like participating in protests, whether it be a march or, as people [including climate scientists] have been doing more in the United States, chaining themselves to the fence outside the White House. [This means that] there are very respected figures wearing suits who the police have to carry away. I think this matters even more. It puts more energy behind [your actions] and then you might decide not to fly. That seems like a very small thing that only you do, but every flight that you take, I forget exactly what the statistic is, but for example the flight from New York to London, if you just do that once [the emissions are equivalent to those of] the average driver in the UK who has a car. Just a one way flight takes a car off the road.

I think that everything is interconnected, and [actions] do build up. You get a level of resonance between personal action, community action, political action, and global change. An optimist would say ‘maybe all these things are starting to resonate together eventually and we will get some kind of meaningful global response in maybe the next ten years.’

Sundial: Optimism is a big question, it’s something that you’ve covered in your class, how optimistic do you think you are personally?

Anfinson: I’m an optimist in a dark way maybe? We all enjoy the world to various degrees. One of the questions at the heart of dealing with climate change is: could you still enjoy a world and love a world which was none the less capable, as this one seems to be, of catastrophic climate change that has the potential to plunge very large portions of the population into quite high degrees of suffering? Is that a world that you could find a home in for yourself, a spiritual home or an emotional home? I think if you can say yes to that question, if you can affirm that, then that’s not necessarily the most optimistic thing but it is …I would prefer to substitute the word ‘optimism’ with affirmation. Can you affirm various circumstances, even if you don’t want to predestine thing or believe that things will be good, especially when you want to be able to tell the truth about things that are not very nice to talk about and that sound very un-optimistic? There’s the argument that optimism gets in the way, that the desire to make things sound good, sound manageable, gets in the way of the ability to tell the truth about those things.

Sundial: Climate change is often associated with the hard sciences. What do you think is the role of other studies, like philosophy in the future of climate change?

Anfinson: You have one scientific view that will still insist that the data is there, that we just have to come to terms with the data and act on the data. But it doesn’t seem like that’s the way humans are, particularly in this instance. There are other scientists who are coming to terms with this. Maybe they’re not engaging in philosophy, but they’re saying that we need to engage in politics, we need to break down this idea that there has to be a strong division between objective science and political engagement.

If one of the key things that philosophy is trying to do is help us think about the meaning of our place in the world, then this is an immense time for philosophy. I think everyone is in some way a philosopher. Everyone likes to tell you how they see the world. When we start talking about things like the anthropocene, which might have a clear scientific definition that places it in a clear scientific category, using science we can say “we will be able to tell by the geological records that this is a new phase in the history of the earth.” That limits it in one way, because the whole label of the anthropocene opens up a philosophical question about what the role of humans on the earth is, what the meaning of human activity is, what the limits of humans are. I think it opens a lot of questions. I’m not saying that it’s the role of philosophy to answer them, but it’s useful to think about them philosophically and to explore them, and then maybe we can come back to the politics and the science with a little bit of a broader imagination and a new way of seeing things that will also give the type of activities that we have to engage in meaning. A lot of people writing about it will say “it seems like we’re going to have to consume a lot less, and own a lot less things, buy a lot less things, travel a lot less. A lot of people see that directly as a loss of meaning in life, a loss of value in life, and some may even say a life not worth living, but I don’t think that’s true. I think philosophy can help you give meaning to that. Also, if you’re in the camp of people who, when you think about environmental destruction and climate change you think it’s really just a technological problem. [Some people think] we just need time, and then we’ll have sufficient technology to engineer our way out of it, take carbon out of the atmosphere, build new habitable cities. [But] that technology doesn’t exist yet. It’s an issue of faith or an issue of philosophy. [Some people] see humans as fundamentally these rational beings without limits, who can achieve anything. I don’t deny that it’s a very nice picture, it’s pleasing in a lot of ways, but that’s fundamentally not an empirical observation, it’s a philosophical observation when you start putting your faith in a vision of humanity like that. Everyone’s tied up in philosophy, even if they’re not actively doing it.

Sundial: You brought up the point that a loss of consumption being equated to a loss of meaning, but there are groups of people who have never enjoyed this consumption. What do you think climate change means for the people who are not the consumers?

Anfinson:  Well I’d say it doesn’t look good. If we think that the political situation in Syria has produced a lot of refugees, that’s nothing compared to the number of refugees that climate change is going to produce. It’s kind of fascinating and surprising when you think that when some people imagine not being able to consume in the way they want to consume, they see that as a life not worth living, when at the same time there are people who have to leave all their possessions and their homelands and their family behind and journey into unknown places where they don’t speak the language, aren’t familiar with the institutions, aren’t familiar with the ecology and geography of the landscape, and the seasons. And yet they still find it worthwhile being alive, and worthwhile fighting for. And I think it is very interesting to see that contrast, and it can maybe serve as a bit of a reality check for people whose first intuition is that they can’t imagine being deprived of their consumption habits. They might be able to abstract from their own position for a second and come back and see that it’s not really so bad if I don’t have access to giant box stores filled with goods.

Sundial: What advice do you have to people who want to get involved, want to learn more about this issue but just don’t know where to start, because it seems so big and hopeless at times.

Anfinson: This is another place where small individual actions can be good. If people feel a lack of confidence and they feel ineffectual, even a small change can bolster their confidence a bit. I think every student when they get a nice grade on a paper (especially if it was higher than they were expecting) feels a nice surprise at their own efficacy and their own ability. Even if there are still problems, and even if there are still critical comments, they’re still feeling good about it. And that’s just a tiny thing. It’s one assignment that you wrote for one class in one year of your studies that you probably won’t look at again. [Climate change is] certainly something that can consume a lot of your time and energy if you want to give it to it, but it’s also enough to be a vigilant reader of the news. You can’t just read the front page because the environmental news gets slated to the bottom of the webpage, or to a separate section if you actually have a physical newspaper. Check those things out. Don’t just follow what’s happening with the next round of negotiations and agreements, try and follow the science sections as well. You don’t have to understand all of the science but we have very skilled science writers out there who are trying to translate the new things that science is seeing with climate change into a new language that is available for broader consumption. As you’re hearing something that might be a bit disturbing it’s also fascinating and empowering as well. You do really have a new knowledge about the world at that moment, and that’s a new knowledge that can inform the conversations you have with other people, the way you vote to the way you behave, the way you consume, whatever. You could give a lot, but you could also just start by looking at, first, the way you live your life, and second, how you read the news, which I think are very small entry points and very manageable for even a very busy student.

Du Bio au pays des 4×4 #1: Santa Cruz Open Streets

By Vincent Virat

Que vous soyez dans l’ancienne bibliothèque du Collège de Jésuites ou en 3A au fin fond de l’Etat de New York, imaginez-vous une journée à Santa Cruz, ville côtière ensoleillée de l’Ouest Américain, gouverné par une entité singulière : l’automobile. Et pourtant, en ce jour d’octobre, des panneaux « road closed » sont dressés et plus de 3 kilomètres de rue sont dédiés au bien-être d’une vie complètement « anti-Américaine », selon les dires de Saskia Lucas, directrice du projet « Santa Cruz Open Streets ».

Plusieurs fois par an, le comté de Santa Cruz devient le théâtre d’une expérience d’intégration sociale assez originale pour un pays où l’on trouve plus de 250 millions d’automobiles individuelles : les rues sont temporairement fermées aux voitures, afin d’encourager la pratique d’une activité sportive, le renforcement des communautés de voisinage et l’éducation au développement durable.

Sont donc réunis résidents, associations et musiciens locaux dans une ambiance festive et décontractée. Le citoyen hippie-lambda-bobo santa-cruzien peut donc apprendre à faire du yoga ou à danser le swing, se renseigner sur les avantages qu’offre l’installation de panneaux solaires sur sa propriété (par le biais d’Alterra Solar, entreprise locale) ou simplement profiter de ces 3 kilomètres de route dégagée pour une promenade le long de la côte Pacifique. « Ce qui est fantastique avec Open Streets, c’est que chaque événement reflète la communauté dans laquelle il est organisé » m’explique Saskia sur la terrasse d’une boulangerie-pâtisserie à Santa Cruz (eh oui, ça existe). En effet, contrairement à nos habituels marchés de Noël ou marathons, Open Streets est à la fois non-commercial, gratuit, organisé par et pour la communauté qu’il représente et orienté vers un mode de vie durable.

Saskia Lucas explique avoir voulu œuvrer à rendre nos villes contemporaines « plus agréables et saines à vivre », avec un fort accent sur « une qualité de vie mise en péril face à l’usage excessif de l’automobile ». C’est un coup de force de Mère Nature qui a initialement inspiré Saskia, à la fin des années 1990 : quinze ans plus tôt, un glissement de terrain força les autorités locales à fermer pour quelques jours l’Autoroute 9, reliant Santa Cruz à Felton, connue pour son « caractère pittoresque, avec des virages sinueux à travers des forêts de séquoias le long du fleuve San Lorenzo ». De façon surprenante, piétons et cyclistes – Saskia comprise – se sont précipités sur l’autoroute déchue pour s’en servir comme promenade. « Il n’y avait pas que des vélos, mais des parents et leurs poussettes, des skateurs et coureurs, sur le coup je me suis dit ‘on devrait organiser ça exprès !’ »

Dix ans plus tard, alors qu’elle quittait sa position à l’association Ecology Action et que les mouvements Open Streets commençaient à se développer dans les villes voisines (San Francisco, Portland), Saskia relève le défi : mettre en place un événement similaire à Santa Cruz. Donner un nouveau sens au bitume, en faire un lieu plus sûr et moins individuel, voilà la mission qu’elle s’est donnée. L’aventure commence en 2012, à l’époque sans le soutien de la municipalité.

Aidée par le réseau qu’elle s’est créé à Ecology Action, Saskia part à la chasse aux sponsors. C’est un lourd travail de recherche de fonds, de participants et de communication qui s’en suit. « Je ne savais pas dans quoi je me lançais » dit-elle. Les deux premières éditions d’Open Streets à Santa Cruz furent donc entièrement financées de manière privée, par des sponsors locaux, des levées de fonds organisées par Saskia et de nombreux bénévoles. De plus, le jour de l’événement, ce sont plus de 50 volontaires qui œuvrent pour la réussite logistique du projet, qui accueille chaque année près de 10.000 visiteurs.

En 2015, au vu de la réussite des deux premières éditions, la ville de Santa Cruz a décidé d’offrir son soutien à l’initiative, en promettant 25 000$ annuels, une somme formidable pour la durabilité du projet. Cet appui public, témoin incontestable de l’implantation du mouvement a ravi les organisateurs : « Les autorités locales souhaitent que ce soit un événement régulier, que les résidents de la ville peuvent anticiper, attendre avec impatience ». La municipalité a su voir le caractère unique de l’initiative « gratuite, non-commerciale, pour la communauté, contrairement à d’autres événements similaires où il faut forcément payer ou acheter ».

Bruno Rezende, étudiant brésilien en échange à l’Université de Californie à Santa Cruz (UCSC) a participé à l’événement et, s’il a particulièrement apprécié l’initiative, en regrette la rareté : « ça pourrait être sympa si la ville faisait ça plus souvent, à Brazilia c’est tous les dimanches de 8h à 18h ! ». Selon Saskia, le but-même d’Open Streets est de montrer en une journée aux participants que l’on peut revoir notre conception de la vie urbaine, au-delà du modèle nord-américain. « Open Streets c’est très ‘anti-américain’, c’est sain et gratuit ; les gens ne sont pas assis sur leurs fesses à regarder le Super Bowl chez eux ».

Adam Millard-Ball, professeur en politiques environnementales et spécialisé en urbanisme durable à UCSC, donne également une vision optimiste du projet Santa Cruz Open Streets, « déclinaison locale d’un phénomène mondial ». Dans son bureau orné de posters faisant l’éloge des transports en commun et des zones piétonnes, Adam m’explique que le côté éphémère des initiatives Open Streets sert surtout à « donner aux citoyens une vision de ce qui est possible, une ville sans voiture et dédiée aux piétons et cyclistes ». Son espoir, « que de tels projets créent une demande citoyenne non seulement pour plus d’initiatives Open Streets, mais aussi au long terme une demande pour un remodelage des rues elles-mêmes ».

Open Streets c’est finalement une sorte de tremplin vers le monde urbain de demain. Il s’agit de convaincre les citoyens et leurs représentants politiques, grâce aux différents intervenants, de la nécessité d’avoir de meilleurs transports publics connectés à un vaste réseau de voies cyclables et piétonnes.

« Le pays se réveille » conclut Saskia à la fin de notre entretien, « par exemple en regardant les vélos comme autre chose que des jouets, ces derniers pourraient représenter une solution majeure aux embouteillages, aux émissions de gaz à effets de serre, tout en faisant la promotion de la santé et du bien-être physique ». Sur ce, Saskia laisse place aux dirigeants politiques et aux communautés afin de traduire concrètement cette noble ambition dans une réalité plus que consciente des risques que nous réserve l’avenir.

Pour ceux qui le souhaitent, rendez-vous dimanche 9 octobre 2016 pour une nouvelle édition de Santa Cruz Open Streets ! En revanche, pas sûr de rentabiliser l’impact carbone de l’aller-retour en avion. Renseignez-vous plutôt sur l’association Vél’Oxygène à Reims, enfuyez-vous pour une escale exotique à la Coulée Verte, demandez-en plus à Mme Laure Miller, adjointe au maire LR à l’écologie urbaine ou choisissez le cours du formidable Morgan Poulizac en deuxième année !

Pour en savoir plus : – Open Streets à Santa Cruz – Le réseau national des initiatives Open Streets

Merci à Saskia Lucas & Adam Millard-Ball

COP21 – Fifth Day

By Elsa Polycarpe


Najat Vallaud-Belkacem’s opening speech for the launching of Education Day

  • Launching of Education Day by Najat Vallaud Belkacem and Ségolène Royal, dedicated to promote the teaching of environmental issues at school
  • 195 countries will be offered to negotiate a global agreement on climate disturbances
  • Summit of local Elected and mayors at the Paris City Hall, presided by Paris’ mayor Anne Hidalgo to highlight the commitments of cities and communities.

COP21 – Third Day

By Thomas Bedouet

On this 1st December, third day of the COP21, the world’s leaders have announced a few propositions.
After the (very mediatized) speeches of the Heads of States, most of the work has been delegated to small specialized groups called “spin off groups”. Thing is, those groups are closed to civil society, which make the assessment of their productivity difficult.

In other news:

  • A 2 billion euro plan allocated by France to African countries in order to promote sustainable energies. This is part of the 6 billion euro plan regarding the energy sector in Africa. Good news indeed, but it still raises the question of the 4 remaining billions. Will they serve to finance environmentally hurtful project?
  • Nicaragua has refused to deliver its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) to the UN. The INDC indicate the efforts each country promises to realize in reducing carbon emissions. What are the reasons invoked by Nicaragua? According to the country, the INDC are synonymous of a geopolitical strategy of climate founded only upon declarations of good will. Nicaragua representatives believe that without a common vision and common framework, the COP21 is just a pure mockery.
  • An NGO, Climate Action Tracker, has revealed information about coal. If all the current projects of future coal-fired power stations are realized, carbon emissions would be 400% higher than the threshold of 2°C in global warming. And if all the stations that exist today remain in activity, carbon emissions would (very likely) be 150% too high.


COP21 – Second Day

By Elsa Polycarpe

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– Opening of “Climate Generation areas”, which are public and free spaces held in Paris from the 1st to the 11th of December for those who wish to observe or participate to the international climate negotiations.

– 28 conferences on the topic “Forests and Agriculture” held in every Climate Generation areas

– Renewable Energies: France promises 2 billions of euros to Africa by 2020

COP21 – Opening Day Summary

By Elsa Polycarpe

Jour 1

Francois Hollande along with Laurent Fabius, Ségolène Royal, Ban Ki-Moon and Christiana Figueres at the Conference opening

This is the 21st climate conference that annually gathers every country willing to act for the environment climate. It is taking place in Paris-Le Bourget, from the November 30th to the December 11th.

  • Francois Hollande greets the 150 Head of States that participate to the COP21
  • Laurent Fabius, French Minister of Foreign Affairs was elected as the COP21 president and made a speech before the assembly: “In this opening day of the Conference, the success is not yet acquired but it is within reach. It is up to us all to show our responsibilities, so I will be able to pronounce the four expected words: the mission is accomplished.”
  • Launch of the “Mission Innovation” project, that engages states to double their Research and Development budgets by 2020.
  • Launch of the “Solar Alliance” initiative, a common solar platform that cooperates between solar-resource rich countries.
  • Establishment of the “Carbon Price Panel” for carbon pricing at a global scale.