Reading Climate Change

The vagaries and deep uncertainties resulting from the global financial meltdown of October 2008 continue to dominate the media and preoccupy individuals and the business world. If raw survival is not quite the issue, financial ruin is now a real threat for many. Simultaneously, on quite another level, feelings of disturbance and dismay about the prospects for the future, even near future, arising out of climate change are widespread. In terms of practical action these two broad influences tend to work against each other: after all, we have been told many times that economic growth means that the cost of responding to climate change is only a minor burden. However, a response when there is no economic growth is a complete unknown, throwing government policy into disarray.

Nevertheless, the background concerns about a natural world that can no longer be taken for granted continue to gain momentum. While the significance of empirical evidence is never straightforward, massive transformations in the broader environment, like the dramatic collapse of the Arctic ice-sheets, in place for millions of years, have an immediacy of meaning compelling for many people. Many scientists agree. Similarly, the increasing occurrence of extreme events such as the recent Victorian bushfires are calling into being a new awareness of what the world and Australia may face over coming decades. The likelihood that developments such as these will have significant, if not entirely predictable, consequences for our future world generates deep foreboding. If the global financial collapse disturbs our sense of certainty, climate change now eats away at the grounds of our being.

In 2007 the Rudd Labour government was elected on a platform that contradicted the denialist stand of John Howard. No one could really know at the time what this commitment meant. The term ‘climate change’ does exist as media rhetoric, requiring little substantial understanding of the phenomenon, and we know that Kevin Rudd does know how to manage the media. But even if it were so that a serious understanding of the phenomenon supported the policy shift, this could only ever be a starting point. After all, serious concern can issue in a superficial view that a new mix of policies will quickly restore balance. Isn’t it so that if we focus our intelligence and our technical resources any problem can be managed?

The larger question, usually ignored, has always been how climate change relates to social assumptions. This is not merely a matter of assumptions about energy, as important as they are. The relevant distinction is between processes that can be manipulated through policy responses and those that work at the deeper level of our core assumptions about social life. While there is no doubt that policy is important, it is also limited, especially if it ignores a fundamental change in the conditions of policy formation.

A focus on assumptions that might lead in the direction of destructive climate change must reach down into the cultural assumptions that we feel, but barely ‘know’. Where these assumptions are ignored or merely re-shaped a little within a broad approach to social life that goes unquestioned — the use, say, of solar rather than gas heating, electric rather than oil-fueled cars — climate change is being treated merely as a phenomenon that requires technical change: lifestyle modifications, limited costs and new policies. It will be argued that this approach will be disastrous in a number of ways, especially in seeming to respond to the ‘problem’, easing public anxiety while locking society into a deepening crisis. Even the understandable tendency to turn the debate into a consideration of whether we should aim for 350, 450 or 550 ppm of carbon in the biosphere — a matter that surely must have an answer — easily and usually deflects the debate into a series of technical strategies that leaves untouched the realm of deep-rooted assumptions about our mode of life which it has now become imperative to question. The question of ‘What is to be done’ is pursued within the terms of the society that we have; not only is large-scale social change off the agenda, the type of society that we have is not brought into the foreground.

This absence of social interpretation is a familiar tendency in environmental writing. The question of the social conditions of environmental destruction is hardly ever raised. We must of course be grateful for the insights environmentalists and scientists continue to bring to the climate change question but this does not preclude coming to terms with the limits of current perspectives. The tendency is to concentrate on what is happening in ‘nature’ and not on how social assumptions structure our relations with it. Examples of this treatment of assumptions could easily be multiplied. In Jared Diamond’s Collapse the social only appears in the broad brush-stroke sense of ‘society’ making choices. Because there is nothing distinctive about the social assumptions that lead to the choices; those choices are, implicitly, forms of stupidity or mistakes. In George Monbiot’s Heat, a non-specific notion of ‘society’ is at work in those choices that encourage air travel — a choice that from the standpoint of global emissions is disastrous. But what is the distinctive nature of such a society, why does it so privilege air travel, both taking it for granted and treating it as essential? This level of understanding is typically ignored in environmental perspectives and this absence has the unintended effect of privileging policy and technological solutions over deeper cultural and social institutional solutions. Given the significance of climate change this hiatus predictably will have tragic effects.

Three recent publications illustrate different implications of this tendency to neglect the social world most people too readily take as given. They are Ross Garnaut’s The Garnaut Climate Change Review, David Spratt and Philip Sutton’s Climate Code Red and Gwynne Dyer’s Climate Wars. Anyone who reads these books will learn from them. They contain a diversity of important information and reflect the maturing of empirical research and debate about climate change over the last five years. But they also contain a level of assumption — one deficient in understanding — that they also share. Arguably, such assumptions lie at the heart of barriers to significant action to combat climate change today.

The Garnaut Report is a report to government. It represents an enormous effort that combines an exhaustive compendium of various developments relating to climate change with modelling for different policy possibilities. It is by definition a policy document, addressed to Kevin Rudd and the Labor government in Canberra. It has been widely criticised by environmentalists and others, especially when the Rudd government adopted a minimalist response with respect to the level of emissions reduction by 2020. The basis for this policy was laid at the feet of the Garnaut Report, although it would be unfair to suggest that this is what Garnaut had intended.

Garnaut’s passion is not at issue. The Report shows every sign of being written by a person determined to take the immensity of the climate challenge seriously. It takes up a great variety of developments now discussed in environmental circles and is both informative and well-informed. However, given it is infused with a belief that all the necessary choices can be made through the policy realm and that these will make the difference that matters, it ignores the underlying conditions of policy formation. Hence it collapses into a series of compromises that indicate its broad, unreflective commitment to the contemporary global order. It is structured around a contradiction. All of its policy proposals to tackle climate change occur within the parameters of neo-liberal globalisation. This is a direct consequence of treating climate change as a straight-forward policy issue that assumes that a series of strategies — even radical strategies — will constitute an adequate response. Many people from various standpoints have been highly critical of Garnaut, but no one has really discussed how his given framework, with its focus on policy, shapes what it discusses and proposes.

The problem with Garnaut’s (and with Rudd’s) emission trading scheme (ETS) generally is its central belief: that neo-liberal globalisation is capable of sufficient adjustment to turn climate change around. For Rudd and his many supporters (for example, David McKnight), this is simply another case of the need for government intervention in an instance of market failure, not unlike what is needed to handle the global financial crisis. Rather than accept this view as a rejection of neo-liberalism, it will be argued that this is in fact a massive contradiction: the core institution that is called upon to respond to climate change by sending out appropriate ‘signals’ — the market — is actually the main driver of the climate change crisis. Garnaut’s focus is upon the level of emissions and what policy strategies can be adopted to reduce them and bring them under control. But if the explicit signals to reduce emissions are promulgated by the market, an institution in its present form that calls out by its very structure further consumption of resources and expansive lifestyles, he has settled for a ‘solution’ that will predictably fail. No doubt, some worthwhile changes may be possible, but they will not be the main story. Amazingly, even a crash program to renew power generation via renewable energy has been put aside. This is to be left to ETS modifications to the market, the market as dominant institution being non-negotiable.

In part this can be understood as a consequence of Garnaut’s own contradictory beliefs. On the one hand, he is deeply concerned about and committed to a significant reduction of greenhouse emissions; on the other, he is a significant architect of the global order through his practical advocacy of institutions devoted to global free trade, in turn legitimised by the pursuit of global growth through expansionist trade. In his book Heat, George Monbiot convincingly argues that the growth of global travel is inconsistent with any serious attempt to control emissions. But he fails to come to terms with how this is an implicit critique of the global order itself. And he does not generalise his work on air and shipping travel to the world of trade. But it is able to be generalised and it amounts to a significant critique of the core institutions of the globalisation process.

Trade and travel on varying scales are activities that have been typical of most societies throughout history. However, under conditions of contemporary globalisation, trade and travel take on qualities that do not compare with past circumstances. They become key institutional expressions of a society that has fundamentally changed its structure: a change in balance from social relations that are predominantly local and face to face to a new social principle where relations maintained at a distance better typify its core qualities. Other technological supports to these social relations where the other person is largely unavailable at a face-to-face level — such as computerised communications and the media generally — are also crucial institutional spheres in such societies. But the social institutions associated with trade and travel are perhaps the clearest illustrations of how social assumptions bear on climate change.

There are serious questions about how trade (or travel) can occur on anything like the scale required in a radically globalised society in the future simply because of the growing shortages of fuel needed to sustain it. But quite apart from that, trade — the lifeblood of an order that expands through global exchange — is a symbol of practical activity that feeds global emissions. No doubt many put their faith in the magic of a technological solution, and this can never be entirely ruled out. But it is a hope that resembles past hopes of a perpetual motion machine. In clinging to this hope there is a refusal to consider the proposition that the social assumptions that drive society towards globalisation are core problems leading to destructive climate change.

There are many reasons for questions around social assumptions in destructive climate change being ignored. For a start, the critique of capitalism from a social standpoint has typically addressed social assumptions as set within class relations. Such approaches have never offered much insight into relations with nature and the environment. This is to say that social interpretation, like practical capitalism, has taken relations with nature for granted. Nature is always implicitly ‘there’ to serve social needs. But this attitude is no longer viable. Society not only ravages what is left of nature but, crucially, also treats it as radically malleable — as able to be reconstituted by scientific technique.

The assumptions inherent in neo-liberal thought that bear on nature and the environment are now widely assumed and are not easily put a side. As is all too evident in the work of that key figure of neo-liberal thought, F. A. Hayek, the central tenets of the contemporary order, supported by the market, are rampant individualism and growth. The glorification of expansion — not only of economy, but also population — is a central legitimation of the neo-liberal idea. Supported by a ‘spontaneous’ background structure — the market — and recently supercharged by high technology, neo-liberalism has unleashed a growth machine that consumes and transforms the world around us. While temporarily constrained by a global financial crisis it is, short of a basic and radical challenge, seen to be the only trajectory available to any process of renewal. Rudd’s response to the neo-liberal global financial crisis, to pose government as an indispensible sector in addition to the market, is of little help. It takes on board neo-liberalism’s own self-understanding which poses the choice between market and state as the crucial, defining issue. His ‘radical’ move is to simply seek a ‘balance’. While a role for government in social affairs is not at issue, Rudd’s response lacks insight into the social processes that bring neo-liberalism into being, as well as how it affects social relations. Nor will any technological strategy be capable of challenging this complex of neo-liberal commitments. It is the main social trajectory, and how it is situated within people’s assumptions, which is the question.

In these circumstances, the consequences for the environment of ignoring social assumptions are beyond calculation. There can be no serious response to climate change without a serious response to what counts as development: the endless elaboration of strategies of social expansion that typify what is called globalisation. Climate change as a policy response needs to be displaced by a response that bites more deeply into what we assume and how we act as social beings.

The recent book by David Spratt and Philip Sutton, Climate Code Red, is highly critical of the Garnaut Report as well as Rudd’s policies. It is a much more political book than Garnaut’s could ever be. In fact it is a mixture of argument about the latest developments in climate change and arguments about how to turn climate change perspectives into a handbook for political activism. Like Garnaut, but in a more focused and economical way, it contains many discussions of practical developments in environmental thinking and analysis that a reader can learn from and even be inspired by. It is infused with a sense of desperation about lack of action on climate change, which would be shared by many people knowledgeable about the findings of climate science. But it takes this desperation into territory that, while understandable, is ultimately wrongheaded and even counterproductive.

The organising idea of the book is the concept of the ‘state of emergency’. As I understand it, this idea as related to climate change first came from James Lovelock in The Revenge of Gaia, where he argues that the situation of the world, combining climate change with various other environmental concerns, is such that an emergency in the form of a war economy is justified and necessary. As a way of signifying the seriousness of the state of the world this seemed like a justifiable strategy to focus people’s attention — to jolt them out of normality. Spratt and Sutton take this idea up with zeal, showing how a political emergency could work as a practical response to the challenge of climate change. While Kevin Rudd would certainly disagree with this one-eyed emphasis upon state action because he seeks a balance between state and market, Spratt and Sutton’s proposal shares with Rudd the idea that the proper focus of practical action lies between the institutions of state and the market. This is a consequence, as was argued in relation to Garnaut, of climate change basically being a policy issue that leaves way of life questions unexplored — although the idea of a more powerful state is an important addition in the case of Climate Code Red.

This emphasis has the consequence of turning climate change responses into political strategies of a rather narrow kind. The whole idea of the political emergency has a long history, one which, as in conditions of war, can readily set in place processes that lack empathy for others and respect for democratic rights. It assumes that the process of renewal is largely known and only requires right action. That the crisis may require a more complex consideration of assumed cultural attitudes and social expectations does not really fit the method. It is true that we have an emergency. It does not follow that we need a political emergency. It is true that if our politicians continue to mouth rhetoric and do nothing of any real substance they may call into being a political emergency. But the hard work lies elsewhere.

Climate change must have a politics, but one that captures the distinctive qualities grounded in what we have previously assumed in our relations with nature. Those qualities are cultural, in the sense of deep assumptions leading us on to a variety of (unintended) practical outcomes. To focus on the complex of commitments within neo-liberalism may allow a little more insight into how we have been drawn into a development nightmare, but to do so it is necessary to go beyond neoliberalism’s self-understanding. For it has no insight into how even Hayek’s recommendations have come to have new meanings under the influence of a cultural revolution that has made our globalised world and drawn society down a blind alley or, perhaps more to the point, onto an unsustainable developmental path.

But this unsustainability has a much larger frame of reference than environmental processes. Whether responding to climate change, resource shortages, food shortages, overpopulation or the global financial crisis — the list is near endless — it is essential to come to terms with a new social force in the world. Neo-liberalism captures some of this social complex, but the way society and the market have been transformed over the last twenty-five years requires a deeper understanding than the reference points celebrated by adherents of neo-liberalism. The neo-liberal market is actually a ‘hyper-market’ when compared with the one with which Adam Smith was familiar. There would be no globalisation, no global financial revolution, no global financial melt-down, no Margaret Thatcher or John Howard without the social process that has issued in various technologies such as the silicon chip and the communications revolution more generally. This social process is typically treated as though it were a natural phenomenon, simply taken as fact; as just ‘being there’. But to leave it there is to ignore the distinctive qualities of global culture and related social forces.

There will be no comprehensive understanding of the kind of society that has taken shape since the early 1980s without a grasp of the emergent role of intellectual practice that issued in the high-tech revolution. For the first time in history the intellectual practices shaping the high sciences have engendered a practical revolution in core social relations, productive economy and culture that has changed the relation of society to nature fundamentally. This relation is now a more abstract one because high technology supports new forms of relations mediated by technology and thereby the emergence of a radical extension of sociality, an enormous expansion of social relations with little reference to place — the global. Without this radically enhanced sphere largely ‘situated’ in cyberspace, there would be no experiments in global finance and expanded levels of growth. Nor would there be that overwhelming sense of omnipotence vis-à-vis all prior societies that is so typical of global culture. And climate change, while issuing from forces with a longer history, would not be running haywire at nearly the same rate. Nor would science be contemplating projects to respond to climate change that threaten to carry us into a post-human world.

There are two broad responses to climate change apart, that is, from trying to deny it. The first and most common response is to find ways of reducing global emissions. But there is another approach that is now being taken seriously in various circles that arises from a view that the world cannot easily pull back from disaster in coming decades and that to avoid these it will be necessary to geo-engineer Earth.

This possibility is forthrightly discussed in Gwynne Dyer’s Climate Wars. This book too is environmentally well-informed. It constructs scenarios of possible futures for different parts of the world if no serious response to climate change emerges very quickly. Needless to say, the scenarios are grim. If it is thought that we are already experiencing a global refugee crisis, read Dyer’s account of the abandonment of southern Europe by European culture, because lands around the equator have become intolerable under the influence of rising temperatures, and their displacement by desperate peoples from Africa. Or if China seems all-powerful because of recent levels of economic growth, read his account of the decimation of the core productive lands of middle-China within decades, with consequences so dire one feels real reluctance to reproduce them in print. It is a fine line, but perhaps some things are better left to the imagination.

It is the attitude of Dyer towards geo-engineering Earth that I wish to place most emphasis on because it raises key contradictions inherent in the present crisis. Geoengineering is about various practical ways in which science might protect the Earth from the consequences of excessive carbon, for example, projecting large quantities of sulphates into the atmosphere to shade the planet. But the larger point is that the high sciences are now taking on this strategy as a project. The argument in this essay has been that environmental writing should not ignore the social assumptions that lie behind climate change; that social assumptions are major causes of climate change outcomes. In the case of geo-engineering the issues are somewhat different. Here it is a question of how climate change may call out the massive powers of high technology to generate a response to it.

Dyer has come to the conclusion that geo-engineering in one form or another is required for us to survive the next few decades. Here there is considerable agreement with a range of commentators that we do indeed face an emergency. Dyer also shares with Spratt and Hutton the view that society is already engaged in geo-engineering by emitting carbon on a scale that is shaping and transforming the Earth. But this use of the term geo-engineering normalises its meanings, suggesting that unintentional causes and the highly intentional act of bringing planetary-scale high-tech solutions into play are one and the same.

To go down this road of geo-engineering in today’s world requires a shift from climatology to general science or physics. It requires a shift from a practical science that transforms particular matters on Earth in a manner consistent with its conquest, to taking Earth as its object with a view to re-constituting it (as Geoff Sharp argued in ‘There are Limits to the Unexamined Life’, Arena Magazine no. 98). This is the project of the high sciences, one first initiated in the splitting of the atom and the making of the Atomic Bomb. Now the full range of high technologies shape new worlds as a matter of course, while humanity loses touch with its place in the world. The re-constitution of the species, the concern of bio-technology, will be matched by the project of geo-engineering Earth. In both cases the sciences will draw on massive forces never before available to humanity and the dangers of moving into a post-human realm devoid of all familiar reference points presses ever closer. If the fears called into being by climate change point to the end of our taken-for-granted Holocene world, what irony if our social responses ensure that outcome.

The global institutions that make up the neo-liberal world represent one of the choices possible after that fundamental shift that ushered in the world of high technology. This particular choice harnessed high-tech to the world of capitalism and as such opened up the possibilities of a post-capitalist order (in the sense used by Geoff Sharp, Arena Magazine 98) that no longer restricts humanity and the Earth to given limitations. This is a world that can only continue in a post-human form, together with a geo-engineered climate.

A world that accepts the high-tech revolution but also works within the limitations of the species and responds to climate change by preserving the natural world is possible. It could be both diverse and complex and in turn would be constrained by a reflexive knowledge of social assumptions. It will need to be more circumspect than what we associate with radical globalisation, with a greater emphasis on local cultures and modest ways of living. The social and individual excitements of expansionist culture and economy will be displaced by the real and concrete joys (as well as hatreds) of social relations significantly grounded in the face to face. When combined with technologies that are emission-free, the real challenge to climate change will have begun.

The books referred to in this essay are: Ross Garnaut, The Garnaut Climate Change Review (Cambridge University Press, Australia, 2008); David Spratt and Philip Hutton, Climate Code Red, The Case for Emergency Action (Scribe, Melbourne, 2008); and Gwynne Dyer, Climate Wars (Scribe, Melbourne, 2008).

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