Climate Justice and the Emergence of Planetary Sovereignty

Photo: NASA. via Flickr.

This article is excerpted from the introduction to Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright's Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future — on sale for 50% off through March 18 as part of our Politics of Climate Change reading list

We presume our audience knows the basics, and to avoid hyperbole we will refrain from appealing to frightening headlines from scientific reports. Furthermore, beyond an appreciation of the scientific consensus on climate change, it is not clear that scientific literacy is necessary to grasp the political-economic transformations required, and many who understand the science are not on our side. The political problems we face cannot be fixed by simply delivering science to the masses. If good climate data and models were all that were needed to address climate change, we would have seen a political response in the 1980s. Our challenge is closer to a crisis of imagination and ideology; people do not change their conception of the world just because they are presented with new data. Despite the many dire signals, most people in the global North still find comfort in the belief that the worst consequences — scarcity of food and water, political unrest, inundations and other so-called “natural disasters” — are far enough away or far enough in the future that they will not live to experience them.

That reaction, although ethically unjustifiable, is nevertheless understandable, because the negative consequences of climate change sound out in two rhythms that are not synchronized. There is, on one hand, the almost imperceptible background noise of rising seas and upward ticking of food prices, punctuated, on the other hand, by the occasional pounding of stochastic events. When we started this book in 2010, the northern hemisphere cooked through the hottest summer on record; when we finished it in 2017, those records, already beaten, were surpassed again, month after month. There is no part of the world that has not changed dramatically. Yet as soon as unheralded events occur — wildfires in Russia and Canada, floods in Pakistan and England, coral bleaching in Australia and Belize, species declining everywhere — they are rinsed and lost by the quotidian wash of whatever comes next. The biggest events have a sound of their own, the high-pitched scream of emergency. But because the background noise ultimately is this emergency in latent form, the true tone of climate change is not yet properly heard. Neither is Benjamin’s call for a “real state of emergency,” to which we return in Chapter 8.

Meanwhile, the ongoing wars for the world’s energy supplies are waged on multiplying fronts. Consider the Arctic, which concentrates all the contradictions of our conjuncture into one geographical region. Warming has reduced the polar ice cap so rapidly that we can expect ice-free ship passage by 2030. Rather than spark a rush to cut off fossil fuel exploitation, this terrible manifestation of our planetary emergency has provoked a new geopolitical struggle — led by Russia, China, the United States, and Canada — to control the flow of resources from and through the north, especially fossil fuel energy. The leading capitalist states thus address the problems they have created by deepening the same problems.

In the face of these trends it is difficult to contemplate the future calmly. Merely to confront our perils can paralyze us with fear. As Mike Davis says, “on the basis of the evidence before us, taking a ‘realist’ view of the human prospect, like seeing Medusa’s head, would simply turn us into stone.” We have done our best to suppress that dread and wrote Climate Leviathan to think through the political-economic futures that climate change seems to us most likely to induce. The mandate for that undertaking, for all its limitations and guesswork, stems from the looming political-economic formations that are no small part of our peril. Above all, we must not be afraid to ask hard questions.

To begin, consider two very difficult clusters of questions. First, if the world is to achieve the massive reductions in global carbon emissions we know are necessary, how might we do so? What political processes or strategies could make that happen in anything resembling a just manner? In other words, can we conceive of revolution(s) in the name of climate justice, and if so, what do they look like? Second, if carbon emissions do not decline adequately (as seems highly likely to us, for reasons explained below), and climate change reaches some threshold or tipping point at which it is globally impossible to ignore or reverse, then what are the likely political-economic outcomes? What processes, strategies, and social formations will emerge and become hegemonic? Can the defining political-economic formation of the modern world — the capitalist nation-state — survive catastrophic climate change? If so, how, and in what form? Do we have a theory of how capitalist nation-states are transforming as a consequence of planetary change?

We posit that presently, we have few if any answers to these questions. Our challenge, to develop a politics adequate to the current conjuncture, calls for all of us who identify with the emerging global movement for climate justice to elaborate responses to these problems. This will not be easy of course. Coherent answers are not only a matter of theory, but also of forms of political struggle that sound out the barriers to and prospects for social and ecological transformation.

Many are thinking through these questions. There is a raft of recent scholarship on climate change and the prospects for political change, with especially significant contributions from environmental sociology, critical human geography, and international relations. Yet given that climate change is a complex, antidisciplinary problem, it is perhaps unsurprising that much of the most exciting work on the prospects for radical change has been written outside of academia. For example, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus the Climate answers our first question — can we conceive of revolution(s) in the name of climate justice, and if so, what do they look like? — affirmatively, arguing that we can overcome the deadlock in the struggle between capitalism and climate justice by building a global movement from “Blockadia”:

Blockadia is not a specific location on a map but rather a roving transnational conflict zone that is cropping up with increasing frequency and intensity wherever extractive projects are attempting to dig and drill, whether for open-pit mines, or gas fracking, or tar sands oil pipelines. What unites these increasingly interconnected pockets of resistance is the sheer ambition of the mining and fossil fuel companies: the fact that in their quest for high-priced commodities and higher-risk “unconventional” fuels, they are pushing relentlessly into countless new territories, regardless of the impact on the local ecology . . . What unites Blockadia too is the fact the people at the forefront — packing local council meetings, marching in capital cities, being hauled off in police vans, even putting their bodies between the earth-movers and earth — do not look much like your typical activist, nor do the people in one Blockadia site resemble those in another. Rather, they each look like the places where they live, and they look like everyone: the local shop owners, the university professors, the high school students, the grand- mothers . . . Resistance to high-risk extreme extraction is building a global, grassroots, and broad-based network . . . driven by a desire for a deeper form of democracy, one that provides communities with real control over those resources that are most critical to collective survival — the health of the water, air, and soil. In the process, these place-based stands are stopping real climate crimes in progress. Seeing those successes, as well as the failures of top-down environmentalism, many young people concerned about climate change are taking a pass on the slick green groups and the big UN summits. Instead, they are flocking to the barricades of Blockadia.

Although we do not agree with everything in This Changes Everything (we quibble with Klein’s approach to capitalism and its history), we strongly endorse this utopian vision of a movement from Blockadia, one that overturns fossil fuels and capitalist political economy in the name of a new relationship to community and the environment. Klein’s vision of a prefigurative politics — reworking democracy through the collective act of placing our “bodies between the earth-movers and earth” — provides a vibrant and compelling answer to the question of what climate justice revolution looks like. For good reason, therefore, Klein has been at the forefront of the international climate justice movement.

Another critical stream of recent literature takes a darker view of the prospects for social and ecological transformation. In marked contrast to Klein, philosopher Dale Jamieson argues that the window of time for Blockadia-driven changes has already closed; the world is firmly committed to climate change. If we are to generate an ethical response to the Anthropocene, he claims, we must learn to accept where we stand historically, which is at the end of a period when climate science generated insights that could have led to dramatic political- economic change, but did not.

In 1992 the largest gathering of heads of state ever assembled met at the Rio Earth Summit and more than 17,000 attended the alternative NGO forum. This marked the beginning of a truly global environmental movement . . . The Rio dream was that the countries of North and South would join hands to protect the global environment and lift up the world’s poor. After nearly two decades of struggle, it was clear by the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference [COP15] that the [Rio] dream was over. The hope that the people of the world would solve the problem of climate change through a transformation in global values had come to an end. What I want to understand is what happened in those years to bring us to where we are today. In that understanding is a key to surviving the future.

The strength of Jamieson’s argument is its resolute realism. He brackets the debate on whether meaningful mitigation (emissions reductions that could avoid calamity) is still possible; instead, he seeks to explain why we failed. His explanation centers on important elements: the challenge of communicating the complexities of climate science for political and economic policy; the lack of attention to the issues in the United States; the failure of successive US administrations to commit to international agreements; and so on. Yet his account is lacking in some respects we consider crucial. It provides no analysis of capitalism or its relation with nature. Even though it relies at key points on the concept of “ideology,” there is little analysis of the substance of ideology in climate politics. And, while his detailed historical chapter is largely persuasive on its terms, we see little justification for beginning the narrative in the late nineteenth century, with the development of climate science. Even if humanity only began to understand climate change in the late nineteenth century, we began to cause it earlier. To grasp the philosophical roots of our climate politics predicament, we must dig deeper.

Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene provides another history of the failure to address climate change, one that pushes the narrative farther back to the origins of “Western civilization”. It is a vivid manifesto for those who believe “civilization” is doomed:

[W]e have failed to prevent unmanageable global warming and . . . global capitalist civilization as we know it is already over . . . [H]umanity can survive and adapt to the new world of the Anthropocene if we accept human limits and transience as fundamental truths, and work to nurture the variety and richness of our collective cultural heritage. Learning to die as an individual means letting go of our predispo- sitions and fear. Learning to die as a civilization means letting go of this particular way of life and its ideas of identity, freedom, success, and progress.

In the face of all the world’s challenges, we can appreciate the urge to “let go” of an entire way of life. But Scranton’s call for us to “learn to die” off ers no political direction, only misanthropy. At a time when the Left everywhere must reinvent means to live together, we cannot make acceptance of death our aspiration. And while we too think that climate change will intensify liberal capitalism’s challenges, Scranton is wrong that “nobody has real answers” and that “the problem is us.” The coming crisis is not “unmanageable”; it is already here, already being managed by liberal capitalism (if rather badly). Indeed, the very “manageability” of the crisis is part of the problem we face. To address it, we do not need to learn to die, but to think, live, and rebel. Moreover, the problem is hardly “us” in the abstract, as if that catastrophe was built into human nature. The problem is largely associated with a specific minority of “us,” and the way that minority’s “civilization” have determined the fate of the entire planet. Rather than accept that “civilization” is dead, we need to struggle to create one that is truly civilized.

At the core of all these contributions — and many others in a literature too vast to review here — are arguments regarding history and nature: How shall we study history and learn its lessons? Any hope of overcoming the planetary crisis requires that we understand that crisis, and this effort must be self-consciously historicist, that is, it must analyze that crisis as an historical moment, to understand, as far as possible, the forces that have helped shape it. The always-fraught politics of historical interpretation is further complicated by the question of nature, human and nonhuman. To what can or should human life aspire? How far back should we go in trying to relay the story of climate change? Many, like Klein, date the crisis to the failure to address climate change during the 1970s. Jamieson focuses on the science of climate change and its encounter with elite policy-makers in the capitalist core, which takes him to the late nineteenth century. The so-called “ecological Marxist” literature offers a much deeper appreciation of our historical trajectory. One lesson it teaches is that natural history underwent a decisive shift during the eighteenth century in England, when a metabolic rift opened between the city and the country, society (the masses) and nature (the Earth’s material flows). Some of the richest work examines the political side of these processes, to provide a theory of the emergence of the modern capitalist nation-state system as an event in the Earth’s natural history. These works provide a framework for a critical natural history of the planetary crisis; ours attempts to theorize its likely political consequences.

To be sure, we too take Marx’s analysis of capitalism as fundamental, and ecological Marxism as a crucial contribution. But these readings also impose limitations for our project. They often simply posit the inevitable “natural limits” to capital’s growth tendency as the basis for a political analysis — the so-called “second contradiction” of capital (the “first contradiction” being that between the forces and social relations of production). But the distinctive, complex qualities of climate change as a political problem — such as the centrality of science for diagnosing our future, the spatial unevenness of causes and effects, the paradoxical temporality of a “tomorrow” that must be addressed today — can be neither explained nor overcome with an analysis limited to Marx’s critique of capitalism. Indeed, even its critics must acknowledge capitalism’s distinctive dynamism and robustness; it has deferred a long list of supposedly “inevitable” crises far past the immanent deadlines so often pronounced. To our knowledge, no ecological Marxists have elaborated a theory of the likely political consequences of climate change. Indeed, in some works, the thorny question of the political is almost entirely evaded, except to say that capitalism must be transcended. But what if it isn’t?

It will be useful to begin to lay the ground for our theoretical framework by identifying four core propositions upon which we build our argument.

1. There is no legitimate basis for debating climate change as such. The climate is changing because of anthropogenic modification of the chemical composition of our atmosphere. The knowledge we have of these changes, distilled from scientific research, is crucial for calibrating our understanding of the future, and we should support further scientific analysis. At the same time, we must beware of expecting too much from science politically.

2. Rapid climate change is sure to have dreadful and often deadly consequences, particularly for the relatively weak and the marginalized (both human and nonhuman). A political or ethical analysis is therefore of the utmost urgency.

The authors cited in the past few pages all agree with these first two points. Important divergences stem from the third and fourth.

3. The political-ecological conditions within which decisions about climate change are being (and will be) made are marked fundamentally by uncertainty and fear; there are no real climate decisions, only reactions. Humanity may or may not have time to drastically mitigate carbon and, therefore, slow climate change. Given the complexity of the world’s climatic system, however, we can only ever know this retrospectively. We assume that we may not yet be past the point where rapid climate change is unstoppable; however, as we will elaborate, there are strong political-economic reasons to believe that we are not going to avoid this fate. In other words, we agree with Jamieson and Scranton — and others, like Alyssa Battistoni and Andreas Malm — that the time has come for an analysis that anticipates (even as it fights against) a rapidly warming world.

4. The elite transnational social groups that dominate the world’s capitalist nation-states certainly desire to moderate and adapt to climate change — not least to stabilize the conditions that produce their privileges. And yet, to date, they have failed to coordinate a response. Thus climate change poses direct and indirect challenges to their hegemony, processes of accumulation, and modes of governance. In light of this, we must expect that elites will increasingly attempt to coordinate their reactions, all while sailing seas of uncertainty and incredulity.

Whether or not Mike Davis is correct that “growing environmental and socio-economic turbulence may simply drive elite publics into more frenzied attempts to wall themselves off from the rest of humanity,” we must consider the means by which such power might be exercised. And we must think these possibilities through beyond the increasingly common “collapse” narratives. It is not enough to forecast doom, however justified it might sometimes seem, in the hope that the mere fear of it will help us find an emergency exit. Only an analysis of the political forces that produce the potentiality of collapse, and the ways in which those forces might themselves be transformed by that potentiality, will lead to an understanding of emerging “relations of force.” These relations of force will take a limited number of forms. Examining the possibilities is urgent if we are to produce an effective counterresponse.

To this end, Climate Leviathan elaborates a framework by which to understand the range of political possibilities, taking into consideration their attendant theoretical resources, social class bases, contradictions, and so on. Our aim is to grasp how the world is moving in the face of a necessary conjuncture, which is nothing but a product of contingency. This “necessity” has absolutely nothing to do with inviolable laws of historical development; neither does it translate to “inevitability.” Rather, it is a ‘‘necessity” in the full Hegelian sense, one that describes the conditions, dynamics, qualities, and forces that make our conjuncture what it is and not something else. The immanent logic of planetary sovereignty, whether it ever realizes itself, is already at work, already shaping our world. The necessity of the precarious world in which we live lies not in what nature has wrought, but in the determinant features of what Nicos Poulantzas called the “current situation.” We must debate the state of the planet, how power operates, our political opportunities, and more. But we must also take those conclusions, tentative and partial as they will be, as a description of the necessary conditions in which we work, and thereby attempt to anticipate what futures they might bring. To put this in methodological terms, we offer a conjunctural analysis, not a teleology, to describe an array of existing social forces and the paths along which they are likely to unfold. Such analyses are inherently limited yet necessary if we seek a different political and ecological arrangement.

To execute this project, we join two broad philosophical traditions. First, we extend the critique of political economy, drawing principally from Marx-Gramsci-Poulantzas, to examine the likely responses of capitalist societies (and their states) to the challenge of planetary climate change. To this end, we present a concise explanation of capital as a form of organizing social and natural life and examine how this form shapes the conception of “adaptation” in the bourgeois imagination. This is by no means to argue that capitalist societies cannot adapt to climate change — they are already doing so. Rather, we contend that the drive to defend capitalist social relations will push the world toward “Climate Leviathan,” namely, adaptation projects to allow capitalist elites to stabilize their position amidst planetary crises. This scenario, we posit, implies a shift in the character and form of sovereignty: the likely emer- gence of planetary sovereignty, defined by an exception proclaimed in the name of preserving life on Earth. We are not suggesting that sovereignty will be characterized by the quasi-monarchical rule of a single person, but rather we recognize — as some suggest Hobbes himself and even Carl Schmitt, at least after 1932, also recognized — that it is almost certainly to be exercised by a collection of powers coordinated to “save the planet,” and to determine what measures are necessary and what and who must be sacrificed in the interests of life on Earth.

Elaborating these concepts requires a critical if selective engagement with theories of sovereignty since Hobbes. Our guiding thread is the conviction that only a theory capable of radically examining capitalism and sovereignty holds any hope of orienting us today. If we are to become capable of enacting revolutionary climate justice, we need a stronger conception of that being, that politics, that world, for which we act. Fighting for climate justice will require a critique of false solutions but also much more. Hence, we conclude by offering our prognosis for change. Our mandate here comes from a conviction that only in a world that has defeated the emerging Climate Leviathan and its planetary sovereignty while also transcending capitalism is it possible to imagine a just response to climate change. In Chapter 7 we speculate upon a revolutionary political strategy, a possible means through which elite reactions may be thwarted, which — to avoid suggesting we know or can yet determine the form it will take — we call “Climate X.”