The politics of climate change

Climate Leviathan:

A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future

On September 25, 2017 the cover of Time magazine featured satellite imagery of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma with the foreboding headline, “The Storms Keep Getting Stronger. And So Do We.” Inside, the lead article on Irma celebrated how “a lot of smart people did a lot of things right” to prevent things from being far worse than they were, while solemnly arguing for policies that would fortify the coasts of US cities against future superstorms. In this example of mainstream climate reporting we can see what Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann term “the politics of adaptation.” Surely, they write, “the most important adaptation that the world could make . . . would be to redistribute wealth and power to end fossil fuel use. . . . It is the world’s wealthy and national elites who must ‘adapt’ so the poor and future generations will not ‘suffer’” Yet such a possibility is excluded by the politics of adaptation. Instead, elite political decisions are represented as natural necessity. Here, the magazine cover presents the reader with a universalized “we,” erasing differences of class, race, and geography, that must adapt to climate change. To what kind of world do such politics lead? What is our alternative?

Wainwright and Mann’s Climate Leviathan seeks to elaborate a theory of the political consequences of climate change. They offer a framework for thinking about our future, one that poses potent questions for revolutionaries. Too often, the authors argue, left discussion on climate change has stopped with the essential insight of ecological Marxism—the second contradiction of capital, that it must expand infinitely in a finite world—giving the impression that climate change “will simply cause everything to change or collapse.” What is missing is a political theory of the likely effects of climate change, something that can provide footing to answer questions like, “Can the capitalist nation-state survive catastrophic climate change?” and “What does a revolution for climate justice look like?”

What is needed is a theory that provides a framework for thinking about the future without succumbing to making forecasts. A theory not just of capitalism, but also of sovereignty—and how both may change. In short, Wainwright and Mann argue that “under pressure from climate change, the intensification of existing challenges to the extant global order will push existing forms of sovereignty toward one we call ‘planetary.’” That is, toward something like the authoritarian state Leviathan envisioned by Thomas Hobbes at the dawn of capitalism, but planetary in both scale and scope, “a regulatory authority armed with democratic legitimacy, binding technical authority on scientific issues, and panopticon-like capacity to monitor the vital granular elements of our emerging world: fresh water, carbon emissions, climate refugees, and so on.” This Climate Leviathan would wield an ultimate mandate against any who dare oppose it: it supposedly acts to save life on Earth.

But Leviathan proper—a capitalist planetary sovereign—is not our only possible future. The authors chart the other possible alternatives: a noncapitalist Leviathan, which they term Climate Mao; a capitalist order that resists the consolidation of planetary sovereignty, Climate Behemoth; and, a society which defeats both capitalism and Leviathan, Climate X. The authors argue that it is not one end point but the protracted conflict between these possibilities, which will constitute our future and ought to guide left resistance. With that, the authors are emphatic that they think Leviathan is the most likely outcome and that, contrarily, X is the only ethical option, the only option with any hope for achieving climate justice.

Why is Leviathan likely? In the chapter “A Green Capitalism?” the authors outline the doomed promise of “green Keynesianism,” which is often presented in liberal and even some left analyses as the only practical response to climate change—society’s necessary adaptation. Keynesianism, historically, is based on a sense that “civilization” is on a precipice, that the end of the world is near—whether in the form of world war, economic crisis, and proletarian revolution, or, today, the threat of the collapse of the earth system. The solution: transfer more power to technocrats (or, “smart people” as Time calls them), who will use the state to discipline capital. Among other failings, Keynesianism has an “inability to even imagine that the work required might be done without the state, because it assumes a priori that the market is the state’s only ‘outside.’” But this failure is formative: between the global nature of the environmental crisis and the transnational nature of contemporary capital, each of which “exposes the territorial nation-state as inadequate to address the crisis,” the only conceivable Keynesian “solution” to the problem is a world state—whether one agreed upon by elites or one that declares an emergency and seizes the powers required to “save the world.”

In “Planetary Sovereignty” the authors identify additional “logics” that drive towards Leviathan. Most interesting is the logic of geoengineering. If carbon mitigation has been abandoned by elites as a strategy, what is left besides continual adaption to a warming world is geoengineering, namely solar radiation management (SRM)—the injection of sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere to decrease absorption of solar radiation. This would radically change the climate all over the world, in unpredictable ways. SRM would require thousands of years of continual management to ensure it doesn’t cascade into its own global climate catastrophe; therefore, “the state or sovereign that initiates SRM would arrogate to itself its own perpetual necessity.”

What is our alternative? The authors do not attempt to create a blueprint for a future revolution for Climate X but offer a few guiding principles and questions, along with the hope that X could emerge from the continued interaction within the global climate justice movement, between the anticapitalism of Marxism with the antisovereignty of radical Indigenous movements. Perhaps the biggest question posed for the left is the question of Climate Mao versus Climate X. “The logic of Climate Mao,” so named because the authors argue it could virtually only arise from the combination of people’s mass movements and centralized state power present in Asia, and for the legacy of Maoism in those struggles, “is that only revolutionary state power rooted in militant, popular mobilization would be sufficient to transform the world’s productive forces and thus resolve our planetary ‘contradiction between society and nature.’” Such a revolutionary state would seize power over the world system and declare Red Terror for the climate. The authors argue that Mao, as Leviathan, is antidemocratic. But this discussion is limited by the fact that the authors do not explore, within their discussion of sovereignty, a theory of the nation-state and revolution. So it is unclear whether the authors mean to critique the tactic of initiating “socialism from above” via capture of state power or, instead, revolutionary states as such.

Whatever their answers, the authors are clear: these questions of the state, democracy, and revolution are fundamental for the left. Climate change doesn’t change them, it just increases their intensity. The framework offered by Climate Leviathan helps pose our political questions in this new register, with the appropriate gravity and urgency of standing at a crossroads of our planet’s natural history.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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