Conflicting Narratives of Climate Change
Many of us still approach the problem of global warming armed only with weapons forged in times when globalization (of media, capital) seemed to be the key issue for the world. Globalization and global warming are no doubt connected phenomena, capitalism itself been central to both. But they are not identical problems. The questions they raise are often related, but the methods by which we define them as problems are, equally often, substantially different. Social scientists, especially friends on the left, sometimes write, as though, these methodological differences do not matter; that scientists are, after all, only studying or measuring the outcomes of capitalism while we, with our methods of political economy, always knew what the ultimate cause of it all was! What I wish to do in this brief statement is go over some of the narratives that the findings of natural or biological sciences make possible. It is not my aim in this short essay to resolve the tensions I point to in our narratives of climate change.
Two Approaches To Climate Change
One generally finds two approaches to the problem of climate change. One dominant approach is to look on the phenomenon simply as a one-dimensional challenge: How do humans achieve a reduction in their emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the coming few decades? The question is driven by the idea of a global “carbon budget” that the fifth aggregate report of the IPCC foregrounded. It also sets as its target the idea of keeping the average rise in the surface temperature of planet below the 2 ºC threshold, since anything above that is labeled “dangerous.” The climate problem is seen in this approach as a challenge of how to source the energy needed for the human pursuit of some universally accepted ends of economic development, so that billions of humans are pulled out of poverty. The main solution proposed here is for humanity to make a transition to renewable energy as quickly as technology and market signals permit. The accompanying issues of justice concern relations between poor and rich nations and between present and future generations: Given the constraints of a given carbon budget, what would be a fair distribution of the “right to emit GHGs”—since GHGs are seen as scarce resources—between nations in the process of this transition to renewables? Should not the less developed and more populous countries (like China and India) have a greater right to pollute, while the developed nations take on more responsibility to make deep cuts in their emissions and undertake financial commitments to help the developing nations achieve their goals? The question of how much sacrifice the living should make as they curb emissions, to ensure that unborn humans inherit a world that enables them to achieve a better quality of life than the present generation, remains a more intractable question, and its political force is reduced by the fact that the unborn are not here to argue about their share of the atmospheric commons.
Within this broad description of the first approach, however, are nested many disagreements. Most imagine the problem to be mainly one of replacing fossil fuel-based energy sources by renewables; many also assume that the same mode of production and consumption of goods will continue. These latter analysts imagine a future in which the world is more technologically advanced and connected than now, and with the critical difference that a consumerist paradise will be within the reach of most, if not all, humans. Some others—on the left—would agree that a turn to renewables is in order, but argue that because it is capitalism’s constant urge to “accumulate” that has precipitated the climate crisis, the crisis itself provides yet another opportunity to renew and reinvigorate Marx’s critique of capital. I am not sure about the kind of economy that these latter scholars visualize as replacing the global capitalist regime, but there is clearly an assumption that a globalized, crowded (nine to ten billion people), socially-just, and technologically connected post-capitalist world can somehow come into being and avoid the pitfalls of the drive to accumulate. And then there are those who think of not just transitioning to renewable sources of energy but of actually scaling back the world economy, de-growing it, and thus reducing the ecological footprint of humans while desiring a world marked by equality and social justice for all. Still others think—in a scenario called “the convergence scenario”—of reaching a state of economic equilibrium globally whereby all humans live at more or less the same standard of living. And then, of course, there are those who think of the most desirable future as capitalist or market-based growth with sustainability.
Against all this, there is another to way to view climate change: as part of a complex family of interconnected problems, all adding up to the larger issue of a growing human footprint on the planet that has, over the last couple of centuries and especially since the end of the Second World War, seen a definite ecological overshoot on the part of humanity. This overshoot, of course, has a long history but one that has picked up pace in more recent times. The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari explains the issue well in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. “One of the most common uses of early stone tools,’ writes Harari, “was to crack open bones in order to get to the marrow. Some researchers believe that this was our original niche.” Why? Because, Harari explains, “genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle.”1 Humans could eat dead animals only after lions, hyenas, and foxes had had their shares and cleaned the bones off all the flesh sticking to them! It is only “in the last 100,000 years,” says Harari, “that man jumped to the top of the food chain.”2 This has not been an evolutionary change. As Harari explains:
Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enables the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc. As the lions became deadlier, so gazelles evolved to run faster, hyenas to cooperate better, and rhinoceroses to be more bad-tempered. In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust.3
The problem of humans’ ecological footprint, we can say, was ratcheted up with the invention of agriculture (more than 10,000 years ago) and then again after the oceans found their present level about 6,000 years ago and we developed the our ancient cities, empires, and urban orders. It was ratcheted up yet again over the last 500 years with European expansion and colonization of faraway lands inhabited by other peoples, and the subsequent rise of industrial civilization. But a further ratcheting up by several significant notches happened after the end of the Second World War when human numbers and consumption rose exponentially, thanks to the widespread use of fossil fuels, not only in the transport sector but also in agriculture and medicine allowing, eventually, even the poor of the world to live longer – though not healthy – lives. (The last big famine we saw in India, for example, was in 1943 before my birth though many still die of hunger.) GHG emissions gave humans the capacity to interfere in Earth systems processes that regulate the climate of the whole planet, in short yielding the planetary-scale geological agency that quite a few scientists and science-scholars including David Archer and Naomi Oreskes have written about. This planet-wide geological agency of humans, however, cannot be separated from the way humans interfere in the distribution of natural life on the planet. Not only have marine creatures not had the evolutionary time needed to adjust to our new-found capacity to hunt them out of existence through deep-sea fishing technology, but our GHG emissions now also acidify the oceans, threatening the biodiversity of the great seas, and thus endangering the very same food chain that feeds us. Jan Zalasiewicz and his colleagues on the sub-committee of the International Stratigraphy Commission charged with documenting the Anthropocene, are thus absolutely right to point out that it is the human record left in the rocks of this planet as fossils and other forms of evidence—such as terraforming of the ocean bed—that will constitute the long-term record of the Anthropocene, perhaps more so than the excess GHGs in the atmosphere. If human-driven extinction of other species results—say, in the next few centuries—in a Great Extinction event, then (my geologist friends tell me), even the epoch-level name of the Anthropocene may be too low in the hierarchy of geological periods.4
Viewed thus, the idea of the Anthropocene increasingly becomes more about the expanding ecological footprint of humanity as a whole – and this must include the question of human population for while the poor do not have a direct carbon footprint, they contribute to the human footprint in other ways (this is not a moral indictment of them) – and less about a narrowly-defined problem of climate change. In that sense, one could say that the expression “Anthropocene” now refers more to (mostly human-driven) changes to earth systems as a whole and less about moral culpability of humans (or some humans) in causing them. As Zalasiewicz says in the concluding paragraph of a recent essay: “The Anthropocene – whether formal or informal – clearly has value in giving us a perspective, against the largest canvas, of the scale and the nature of the human enterprise, and of how it intersects (‘intertwines’ now, may be a better word) with the other processes of the Earth system.”5 This reminds us that the climate change problem is not a problem to be studied in isolation from the general complex of ecological problems that humans now face on various scales—from the local to the planetary—creating new conflicts and exacerbating old ones between and inside nations. There is no single silver bullet that solves all the problems at once; nothing that works like the mantra of transition to renewables to avoid an average rise of 2°C in the surface temperature of the planet. What we face does indeed look like a wicked problem, one that we may diagnose but not be able to “solve” once and for all.6
Anthropocene and the Inequities of Capitalism
In my essay, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” I acknowledged that there was “no denying that that climate change has profoundly to do with the history of capitalism” but added that it could not be reduced to the latter.7 I then went on to point out that while climate change would only accentuate the inequities of the global capitalist order as the impact of climate change—for now and in the immediate future—falls more heavily on poorer nations and on the poor of the rich nations, it was different from the usual crises of capital. I said: “Unlike in the crises of capitalism, there are no lifeboats here for the rich and the privileged …”8
Many scholars on the left vehemently oppose the idea this could be a crisis for all of humanity, not to speak of a the idea of a “human”-induced climate change. Thus, the Swedish academics Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg ask in a widely-cited essay if human actions have indeed precipitated this collective slide into a geological period that signifies human domination of the planet and even of its geological history, then why name that period after all humans or the human species, the anthropos, when we know it is the rich among humans or the institutions of capitalism or the global economy that are causally (hence morally?) responsible for this change in our condition? “A significant chunk of humanity is not party to fossil fuel at all,” they point out, and add: “hundreds of millions rely on charcoal, firewood or organic waste such as dung.” And they cite the Canadian scholar Vaclav Smil to say that “the difference in modern energy consumption between a subsistence pastolarist in the Sahel and an average Canadian may easily be larger than a 1,000-fold” – hence “humanity seems far too slender an abstraction to carry the burden of causality [for climate change]. … Realizing that climate change is ‘anthropogenic’ is really to appreciate that it is sociogenic.”9 And then they go on to criticize my statements regarding the rich having no “lifeboats.” “… [T]his is a flawed argument,” they write. “It blatantly overlooks the realities of differentiated vulnerability on all scales of human society … For a foreseeable future – indeed, as long as there are human societies on Earth – there will be lifeboats for the rich and the privileged.”10 Quite a few other scholars have since repeated the charge.
I find it ironic that some scholars on the left should speak with an assumption similar to that made by many members of the rich who do not necessarily deny climate change but believe that, whatever the extent of the warming and destabilization of the climate, they will always be able to buy their way out of the problem! This is understandable coming from economics textbooks that envision capitalism as an economic system that will always face periodic crises and overcome them, but never face a crisis of such proportions that it could upset all capitalist calculations. It is easy to think within that logic that climate change was just another of those business cycle-type challenges that the rich had to ride out from time to time. Why would scholars on the left write from the same assumptions? Climate change is not a standard business cycle crisis. Nor is it a standard “environmental crisis” amenable to risk-management strategies. The danger of a climate tipping point is unpredictable but real.
Left unmitigated, climate change affects us all, rich and poor. They are not affected in the same way, but they are all affected. A runaway global warming leading to a Great Extinction event will not serve the rich very well. A massive collapse of human population caused by climate dislocation—were it to happen—would no doubt hurt the poor much more than the rich. But would it not also rob global capitalism of its reserve army of “cheap” labor on which it has so far depended? A world with freakish weather, more storms, floods, droughts, and frequent extreme weather events cannot be beneficial to the rich who live today or to their descendants who will have to live on a much more unfriendly planet. Remember that the American scientist James Hansen’s book, Storms for My Grandchildren, spoke of the perils that future generations of Americans will face. Hansen’s book was about his own grandchildren, not the grandchildren of friends Hansen may have in India or China. In fact, the journal Science News published by the University of Leicester has just reported the conclusions of a study led by Professor Sergei Petrovskii of their department of applied mathematics that suggests that “an increase in the water temperature of the world’s oceans of around six degrees Celsius – which some scientists predict could occur as soon as 2100 – could stop oxygen production by phytoplankton by disrupting the process of photosynthesis.11 I do not think that the rich, for all their money, would find it easy to survive in a world whose supply of oxygen had dried up, for even the rich are subject to biological processes!
Consider also this argument: If the rich could simply buy their way out of this crisis and only the poor suffered, why would the rich nations do anything about global warming unless the poor of the world were powerful enough to force them to act? Such power on the part of the poor is clearly not in evidence. Nor were the rich nations were ever known for their altruism. A better case for rich nations and classes to act on climate change, it seems to me, is couched in terms of their enlightened self-interest. The science of global warming allows us to do so by precisely making the point that for all its differential impact, it is a crisis for the rich and their descendants as well—as Hansen’s popular book amply makes clear. So yes, a politics of even broader solidarity is called for though, I agree that this is by no means easy to achieve.
Politics in/of the Anthropocene
So long as we think of climate change simply as a problem of greenhouse gas emissions and as a matter of transitioning to renewables within a given timetable and a specified carbon budget, we can also point to what might constitute “the politics of climate change,” e.g. the just distribution of the carbon budget between developed and emergent economies and poorer or more immediately threatened nations. A very difficult question to ponder, however, is whether or not the climate crisis—when seen as symptomatic of humanity’s ecological overshoot—also signals the first glimpse we might have of a possible limit to our very human-centered thinking about justice, and thus to our political thought as well. Global warming accentuates the planetary tendency towards human-driven extinction of many other species, with some scientists suggesting that the planet may have already entered the beginnings of a long (in human terms) Great Extinction event.12 Anthropogenic climate change thus produces a crisis in the distribution of natural reproductive life on the planet. But our political and justice-related thinking remains very human-focused. We still do not know how to think conceptually—politically or in accordance with theories of justice—about justice towards nonhuman forms of life, not to speak of the inanimate world. Thinkers of animal rights have extended questions of justice towards some animals, but their theories are limited by strict requirements relating to the threshold of sentience in animals. Besides, some philosophers also argue that, whatever the practical value of a category such as life in biology, “life as such” cannot be a strict philosophical category. Yet we cannot think “extinction” without using the category “life,” however difficult it may be to define it. The really difficult issue that arises when scholars write about humans being stewards of the planet is what our relationship, conceptually, would be to bacteria and viruses, given that many of them are not friendly to the human form of life (while many are). Yet it is undeniable that the natural history of species life on this planet involves the histories and activities of bacteria and viruses.
So while I agree that politics as we know it continues and will continue into the foreseeable future, and that there is no politics of the Anthropocene as such (but much politics about the label “Anthropocene,” as we know!), a deepening of the climate crisis and of the ecological overshoot of which it is a symptom may indeed lead us to rethink the (European) tradition of political thought that has, since the seventeenth century and thanks to European expansion, become everybody’s inheritance today. Nigel Clark makes a similar point from a somewhat different point of view: “A generous – and apposite – response to Anthropocene inquiry, then, might be a new willingness in critical, social, cultural and philosophical thought to embrace the fully inhuman … This means putting thought and questions of practical action into sustained contact with times and spaces that radically exceed any conceivable human presence …[and] to connect up with … vast domains that are themselves recalcitrant to the purchase of politics. In this way, the Anthropocene … confronts the political with forces and events that have the capacity to undo the political ….”13
Now to the question of whether or not we should think of humans through the biological category of “species,” alongside other historical categories such as “capitalism,” as we think through this crisis. Malm and Hornborg take the position that while “the Anthropocene” might effectively represent a possible polar-bear point of view, – since they, the bears, might want to know “what species is wreaking such havoc on their habitats” – “within human kingdom, … species-thinking on climate change is conducive to mystification and political paralysis.”14 Let me say why I disagree. Can the story of ecological overshoot by humans be thought of simply as the story of modernization and its inherent inequalities and also not as the story of a particular species—Homo sapiens—coming to dominate the biosphere to such an extent that its own existence is now challenged? Think of the story as Harari tells it. Today with their consumption, numbers, technology and so on, humans—yes, all humans, rich and poor—put pressure on the biosphere (the rich and poor do it in different ways and for different reasons) and disturb what I called above the distribution of life on the planet. Harari puts the point well: “Humankind ascended to the top [of the food chain] so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of domination have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position…” He concludes: “Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.”15
If one could imagine someone watching the development of life on this planet on an evolutionary scale, they would have a story to tell about Homo sapiens rising to the top of the food chain within a very, very short period in that history. The more involved story of rich-poor differences would be a matter of finer resolution in that story. As I have said elsewhere, the ecological overshoot of humanity requires us to both zoom into the details of intra-human injustice—otherwise we do not see the suffering of many humans—and to zoom out of that history, or else we do not see the suffering of other species and, in a manner of speaking, the suffering of the planet.16 Zooming in and zooming out are about shuttling between different scales, perspectives, and different levels of abstraction. One level of abstraction does not cancel out the other or render it invalid. But my point is that the human story can no longer be told from the perspective of the 500 years (at most) of capitalism alone.
Humans remain a species in spite of all our differentiation. Suppose all the radical arguments about the rich always having lifeboats and therefore being able to buy their way out of all calamities including a Great Extinction event are true; and imagine a world in which some very large-scale species extinction has happened and that the survivors among humans are only those who happened to be privileged and belonged to the richer classes. Would not their survival also constitute a survival of the species eventually (even if the survivors eventually differentiated themselves into, as seems to be the human wont, dominant and subordinate groups)?
The ecological overshoot of humanity does not make sense without reference to the lives of other species. And in that story, humans are a species too, albeit a dominant one. This does not cancel out the story of capitalist oppression. Nor does it amount to the claim that any one particular discipline now has the best grip on the experience of being human. Biology or something that misses out on the existential dimension of being human will never capture the human experience of falling in love or feeling love for God in the same way that poetry or religion might. A big brain gives us a capacity for cognition of that which is really big in scale. But it also gives us our deeply subjective experience of ourselves and our capacity to experience our individual lives as meaningful. We cannot produce a consilience of knowledge. But surely we can look upon ourselves and on the human story from many perspectives at once.
Debating Climate Change in Uneven Public Spheres
Climate change is an unfolding problem, and human responses to it—both practical and intellectual—will no doubt vary with the actual futures we come to face. Ten years ago, before the fourth aggregate report of the IPCC became the subject of great publicity in print and electronic media, a typical laundry list of debatable questions with reference to climate change would have seemed rather different and much less urgent than issues about the climate that agitate us today. Ten years ago, it was difficult, for example, to interest social scientists in India – the country I am from and a country that is among the top four biggest emitters of greenhouse gases today –in the topic of climate change. Everyone, however, was absorbed in debating globalization. Foucault and Agamben, governmentality and bio-politics, and the economists Stiglitz and Bhagwati, were on everyone’s lips, not Paul Crutzen, Eugene Stoermer, or the idea of the Anthropocene.
The first essay I ever wrote on climate change – “The Climate of History: Four Theses” – was written originally in Bangla (Bengali) in a Calcutta journal, Baromas, in 2008. No one in the city (or elsewhere) took much notice of it until I translated and expanded it into an English version for the American journal, Critical Inquiry, which published it in 2009. The experience made me aware of two aspects of the contemporary world I inhabit. Not all global issues were equally global. Globalization – including questions about multinationals, money markets, derivatives and complex financial instruments, the net, the social media, and, of course, the global media – was a genuinely global topic that was discussed everywhere but global warming was not. And it also became clear as to who set the terms of the discourse. It was the scientists of nations that played a historical role in precipitating the problem of climate change through their emission of polluting greenhouse gases – e.g., The United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and other developed countries – who played two critical roles: as scientists, they discovered and defined the phenomenon of anthropogenic global warming, and as public intellectuals, they took care to disseminate their knowledge so that the matter could be debated in public life in an informed manner. I am thinking of scholars/researchers like James Hansen, Wallace Broecker (who coined the phrase “global warming”), Paul Crutzen, Jan Zalasiewicz, David Archer, Will Steffen, Tim Flannery and others. Scientists of emerging economies like China and India remained confined to their specialist arenas of research. None of them, to my knowledge, wrote any book to explain global warming for the general reader. Global warming is a planetary phenomenon. But as a subject of discussion, it seemed to be distributed very unequally in the world. The situation has changed somewhat in the last ten years – thanks in part to the increasing frequency and fury of extreme weather events in different areas of the world – but not substantially.
What are the implications of this disparity in the distribution of information? It surely skews the “global” debate on climate change in more than one way. When governments come to global forums to discuss and negotiate global agreements on climate change, they do not come equally resourced with informed public discussions in their respective nations while some governments, admittedly, do not even desire informed publics. More importantly, it means that our debates remain anchored primarily in the experiences, values, and desires of developed nations, i.e. in the West (bracketing Japan for the moment) even when we think we are arguing against what we construe to be the selfish interests of “the West.”
In preparing this note, I have drawn on – and departed from – my essay “After Nature: A Response” in Thomas Lekan and Robert Emmett eds. After Nature: Politics and Practice in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Four Theses on Climate History (Munich: Rachel Carson Center, forthcoming 2016).
1. Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (New York: Harper Collins, 2015), 9.
3. Ibid., 11–12.
4. “If global warming and a sixth extinction take place in the next couple of centuries, then an epoch will seem too low a category in the hierarchy [of the geological timetable].” Personal communication with Professor Jan Zalasiewicz, 30 September 2015.
5. Jan Zalasiewicz, “The geology behind the Anthropocene,” (typescript, 2015), p. 12. I am grateful to Professor Zalasiewicz for sharing this paper with me.
6. See the detailed and excellent discussion in Frank P. Incropera, Climate Change: A Wicked Problem—Complexity and Uncertainty at the Intersection of Science, Economics, Politics, and Human Behavior (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).
7. Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry, Winter 2009, p. 212
8. “The Climate of History,” p. 221
9. Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg, “The geology of mankind? A critique of the Anthropocene narrative,” The Anthropocene Review, 11, 2014, p. 65.
10. Ibid., p. 66
11. “Failing Phytoplankton, Failing Oxygen: Global Warming disaster could suffocate life on planet Earth,” Science News, 1 December 2015. The reference to the scientific study is Yadigar Sekerci, Sergei Petrovskii. “Mathematical Modelling of Plankton–Oxygen Dynamics Under the Climate Change,” Bulletin of Mathematical Biology, 2015; DOI: 10.1007/s11538-015-0126-0. I owe this reference to Julia Adeny Thomas.
12. Gerardo Ceballos et al., “Accelerated Modern Human-induced Species Losses: Entering the Sixth Mass Extinction,” Science Advances 1, no. 5 (2015): 1–5.
13. Nigel Clark, “Geo-Politics and the Disaster of the Anthropocene,” The Sociological Review, 62: S1, 2014, pp. 27-28.
14. Malm and Hornborg, “A geology,” p. 67
15. Harari, Sapiens, 11–12.
16. Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Human Significance of the Anthropocene,” in Modernity Reset, ed. Bruno Latour (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, forthcoming).