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The Numerology of Climate Change

An abstract for a paper I’m writing – [update - here's the link to the short article in Anthropology News]

One does not need to go far in the public discourse surrounding climate change to be inundated with the mystique of number. In the United States, where viewers of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth were treated to specific stunts of quantificatory pontification, just as in Singapore, where I teach climate change to nonspecialist undergraduates, the numberwork of graphs and charts has its own techie vitality. Check out the graphical puppetry in this University of Minnesota project in which a cellist tracks global temperature changes no matter how out of key the song is. The human is the dependent variable of an unknown function, whose independent variable is temperature driven by anthropogenic CO2. Anthropogenic goes two ways: anthropogenic CO2 has re-made the climate, and now the climate promises to dictate. Where is this tune going?

Drawing on my on-going research on the imaginative dimensions of carbon accounting, in this commentary I look toward key moments in the emergence of climate change science to identify why the numbers mystique holds such powerful sway over the possibilities for thinking climate change. Part of the story must include the promises of ‘big data’ and sheer computational prowess of the late-20th century. But what fascinates me are very early moments in climate science that seem to have secured the terms through which contemporary political thought takes place.

Joseph Fourier, working in the first decade of the 19th century, secured the mathematical speculation at the heart of climate modeling and associated debates about uncertainty. Svante Arrhenius, often credited with articulating the first complete theory of climate change, published in 1896, decisively established the quantification of carbon dioxide as the key independent variable, and articulated this in the same form through which carbon quantification is dealt with today. Lastly, Dave Keeling’s monumental efforts to rigorously measure global CO2 levels have established the unity of climate change as a scientific and political issue based on its theoretical human etiology.

When one imagines scary apocalyptic futures fraught with uncertainty but which hinge on that single variable, through these three elements—speculation, quantification and anthropogenesis—that imagination is possible.

Planning, Management, Design: Whence climate interventions? – Reading copy AAAs 2012

Climate change is a sui generis political challenge. The atmospheric and geochemical processes at stake continue to outpace our still-emerging understanding of Earth as planet and home. While actual weather events outstrip our capacity to understand them, the informational basis for experiencing climate change has led to a situation in which a single variable, atmospheric concentration of GHGs, measured in parts per million, gets prioritized as the focus of global attention. Paul Edwards (2010) describes the extensive global knowledge infrastructure of climate science as a prerequisite to ‘thinking globally,’ the coming-into-being of a planetary ecological experience slowly emergent over the twentieth century but rapidly intensifying. It means that the experience of climate change is always an experience of information within an elaborate infrastructural ecology. As Edwards describes, climate science has articulated an extremely powerful, integrated global knowledge infrastructure. But in political and economic domains, the analogous market infrastructure has increasingly fragmented regulatory space across what Jane Guyer calls platform economies, which aren’t markets per se but informational platforms through which practices of innovation, fraud, political influence, investment, gaming, entrepreneurship and other kind of climate-related market activity proliferate.

Several categories of practical reason can be delineated here, namely planning, design and management. I work with these in turn to lay emphasis on a fourth category, remediation. The anthropological significance of an international climate regime is that it represents an emergent attempt to manage the chemical composition of the atmosphere. To that extent, let me express a sense of amazement at the scope of ambition in the project to establish a singular global climate regime, which so far has remained elusive. Another way of looking at this is that carbon information—carbon accounting and carbon markets—seeks to remediate humans’ material involvement in the geological carbon cycle. Paul Rabinow (2007) uses the term remediation to describe processes subjected to new media strategies within programs of improvement. Quantification of atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions forms the centerpiece of all major regulatory strategies for minimizing climate change. Turning ‘carbon’ into detailed information about human activities, which can then be financialized in various ways, seeks to remediate humans’ role in the geological carbon cycle.

In this talk I want to focus on the priority given to atmospheric greenhouse gases as the sin qua non of economic planning for minimizing global warming. I describe how the anticipatory or speculative inheritance of climate knowledge overshadows and, in practice, has reproduced practices of speculation within highly mediated market contexts. Carbon as information emerges in carbon accounting and trading practices, both of which form the primary basis for economic planning for minimizing global warming.  

Managing atmospheric chemistry

One result of the emphasis on a single variable is that carbon has become an intriguing and wide-spread metric of the human capable, in different ways, of bearing on human–atmosphere relations. This has invited widespread creative activity that critically reflects on the potentiality and mutability of carbon in diverse forms. In part the question is simply, what experimental projects can be done with carbon? What forms does carbon take and what informational platforms can it circulate on globally?

In Thailand, since 2007 or so many industrial agricultural firms have invested in emissions reduction projects in the hope of selling their reductions to European buyers through a United Nations process called the Clean Development Mechanism. I’ve been interviewing these agro-businesses and the companies that help them set up the carbon projects. These projects produce methane from wastewater from their processing plants, then carefully measure the methane and burn it for energy. The unprocessed wastewater is jet black, with a sharp, highly organic smell. Water pollution is measured in terms of chemical oxygen demand (COD), which indicates the load of organic compounds. It is processed in large, tarp-covered digester ponds through an anaerobic process. The main gases that come out of the digester are CH4, HS4, H2O and CO2. HS4 is highly corrosive and presents a major business challenge because it destroys instrumentation.

The measuring requirements, mandated by the UN, are highly complex and most companies fail to ever earn any credits to sell, although they often continue to capture methane and burn it in the factories. The crucial component is this informational process of converting chemistry to information, and those companies which are successful have had to come up with innovative business models. There is a monetary component here, driven by an entrepreneurial relation to risk, but the crucial management dimension is conversion of chemistry to information.

I mean management here as a category of practical activity that bears on complex relational materialities. The Thai agricultural carbon producers have to figure out how to manage a chemical-informational exchange between corrosive waste gases, international carbon finance and United Nations regulatory proceduralism. As part of a much longer argument I have developed elsewhere, management comes to bear on problems that can’t be solved in any straightforward way. What gets managed? Large companies and employees, to be sure, but also floods and forests, ‘environments,’ pain, mental illness, traffic, sewage, risk, information, intractable illnesses like diabetes, public relations, disasters, crises, activists and shareholders alike. These are objects of management. Each points toward on-going material-semiotic negotiations with not-natural, not-cultural entities like, in this case, our new atmosphere. Problems for management are delegated to managers, investors and entrepreneurs. Management is a labor relation internal to capitalist enterprise but always heterogeneous to it, for it deals with knotty materialities that may never be abstracted enough to cleanly enter relations of exchange. Viewed differently, management represents a zone where government, commercial and technical practices are maximally indistinct. Here, carbon quantification constitutes the atmosphere as an object of management via chemical-informational interfaces. 

Market Design

Market-oriented policy relies on speculative competition to drive a carbon price. Since 2010, carbon prices have collapsed, and continue to be very uncertain.Europe’s market was set up in 2005. Donald MacKenzie (2008) has described how the design of Europe’s emissions cap had a fundamental flaw, namely that it allowed governments to promise lobbyists free permits, even if those promises added up to more than should be allowed in the total system. A related problem is that most of the permits through 2012 have been distributed free (beginning in 2013 they will increasingly be auctioned). So while industries enjoyed windfall profits—essentially a multi-billion dollar subsidy for agreeing to accept climate legislation—the overall cap on emissions has turned out to be far too weak. Estimates now suggest as many as 1.5 billion excess permits are in the system, exacerbated by UN offset credits like those produced in Thailand.

For those who follow carbon markets in detail, the degree of committed complexity to consider is remarkable, especially considering the level of fraud the markets have experienced. For example, across Europe, a major hacking theft occurred where stolen permits—which exist only as electronic numbers on government registries—were sold back into the carbon markets, such that buyers did not know if they held stolen permits or not. In 2011 the spot markets shut down for more than three weeks. The fix put in place by the EU was efficient but not reassuring. They simply created a rule stating that it didn’t matter if an account held stolen property.*

The proliferation of separate carbon markets in China, Thailand, Australia, California, South Korea and elsewhere helps demonstrate the technical complexities of these platform economies, each of which defines a virtual space complexly articulated with others. The market fiction here is that a ton of carbon is always equivalent to a ton of carbon, no matter where on earth it is emitted—but this view says nothing about the entrepreneurial practices at stake. If planning is going to rely on the enterprise of commercial actors to create new technologies driven by a price on carbon, they will have to take into consideration these other kinds of enterprising activities such as lobbying, fraud and theft, which actively reconceive the material dimensions of information across diverse platforms.

Guyer has suggested that diverse platforms of creating and exchanging value offer a kind of segmented landscape as an alternative to so called market economics. The knowledge here is knowledge of these socio-technical devices. I view platforms literally as the informational and normative-legal bases for establishing exchange, and make the point that diverse platforms proliferate radically, while movement between platforms is the high-risk, high-reward activity par excellence. Donald MacKenzie argues—and I agree to a point—that there is tremendous capacity for technical criticism by critical scholars, but I don’t think design criticism alone can account for the ways governmental prerogative is continually held hostage to the demands of lobbyists and industry.

Planning for Climate Change

The lesson is that it’s politically relatively easy to set up the informational platforms for carbon regulation, but setting the cap on emissions—the limit to pollution—is extremely difficult. Planning for climate change means distributing obligations to reduce emissions while minimizing the economic costs and uncertainties of doing so. The assumption is that policy clarity and fairness gives industry the opportunity to make good investments in the long run, and that energy infrastructures take a long time to re-tool. But the term ‘planning’ may be something of a misnomer in such explicitly market-oriented contexts. I take planning as the application of norms to detailed decisions about how people live, within a commitment to systematic knowledge about the social. Yet by regulating quantified emissions in the abstract, quantification defers all the major detailed decisions about how companies and people respond to carbon constraint. Carbon information promises to let people or companies make their own decisions about how—and how much—to reduce emissions based on a price signal. It promises normalization via measurement and trade, without any commitment to specific norms or detailed social knowledge.

Carbon markets have been seriously chaotic for the past three years due to the design failures just mentioned, but part of the problem is that Europe has achieved its goals too easily due to the economic recession. The cap on emissions was set in 2004 or 2005 based on modeling of the economy that simply proved wrong with the financial collapse. For industries regulated by the carbon market, a low price is great—it means lower costs and less obligation to do anything. What interests me from a planning perspective, however, is that debates about the price of carbon in Europe have hinged on what the purpose of the market is supposed to be.

Well, the point of the market is to lower carbon emissions, right? Yes, but what does that mean? Many people in the EC felt that the objective of the carbon market was to transform Europe’s technological base for power generation, and that the carbon cap was an imperfect tool for doing so. Many companies agreed, too, since the carbon price was an effective subsidy for all sorts of new technologies. Others said the EC has confused its policy directives, and had undermined the carbon price by subsidizing wind and solar power through a different renewable energy policy.

In other words, is the issue just a linear numerical reduction in CO2 emissions? These actors suggest a more thorough critique in the form of a project to transform the energy basis of society. It suggests the contemporary atmosphere is an artifact of a historical form of industrial economy in which the practice of burning fossil fuels makes people geological actors.

In the meantime, the coherence of carbon markets as a planning strategy, once held in place by the legally binding orientation of United Nations negotiations, has been thoroughly undermined. Since its inception, the UN approach to climate change was eventually to set a legally binding numerical cap on total emissions among those countries which have obligations. As one Sierra Club campaigner told me, global climate policy “depends on a concrete definition of the universe within which emissions occur, and carbon trades cannot involve reductions outside of that universe.” That principle was the organizing logic of a planned UN climate administration. What’s happened since 2009, however, is that multiple universes have proliferated. At the UN conference in Copenhagen in 2009, all of this was called into question, and it can no longer be assumed that negotiations will result in a single, legally binding agreement with an overarching numerical commitment to lower emissions. Instead, we face a far less unified, heterogeneous international policy space and we won’t know if a reasonable plan will emerge, in my view, until 2017 at the earliest. To answer the question posed by this panel, in fact nobody has a plan.

Concerning planning, what’s most interesting to me as an anthropologist is its problematization (Rabinow 2003, following Foucault 1988). A problematization, [writes Foucault] … does not mean the representation of a pre-existing object nor the creation through discourse of an object that did not exist. It is the ensemble of discursive and nondiscursive practices that make something enter into the play of true/false and constitute it as an object of thought.

Two problematizations emerge here I want to affirm. First, is climate change simply a problem of the numerical concentration of greenhouse gases, or is it a problem of a historical form of industrial economy in which social organization is predicated on planetary-scale geological practices? Second, given this planetary scale of human intervention and its intimate connection to how people live in the contemporary, what is the form of international governance suitable to climate intervention? These problematizations, I believe, define the actuality of climate planning today.

Conclusions

Governmental processes are highly reliant on market actors, due to several decades through which governments have deferred many if not most major decisions to commercial interests. Frankly, governments don’t know what to do about most of their problems, and they have less and less capacity to act even when they can figure out what to do. At the same time, the attitude through which commercial and nongovernmental actors approach climate change can often be very surprising, and I find it best to view climate change as an anticipatory, highly imaginative space of practical elaboration of different potential futures. These imaginative processes bear on polluting behavior and on innovative human-atmosphere relationships to create new platforms of exchange that may or may not articulate with each other. Carbon information makes this possible, especially through the emergence of atmosphere as an abstract space of quantified global and future relation.

By tracing management, design and planning as categories of practical reason appropriate to climate interventions, I’ve traced a story about the actuality of climate planning with respect to two problematizations: will carbon markets and other platform economies serve to transform the fossil energy basis of late industrial economies? And, given the planetary, atmospheric and geological dimensions of climate change, what is the form of international governance suitable for climate intervention?

To this end, let me conclude with thoughts about a fourth category of practical reason, remediation. Carbon accounting practices objectify the atmosphere and, in so doing, posit the atmosphere as a new medium for global relations. Atmosphere is a literal medium, in the sense that it envelops the earth and increasingly forms the possibility for new anthropological futures. Atmosphere is also a medium in the sense that its physical characteristics form the basis for work, that is, a way to slow the transition rather than simply arriving at climate change ‘immediately,’ as it were. Work implies a pragmatics of imagining different futures, combining practices of logical extrapolation, speculation, and materialization. Carbon accounting remediates human involvement in geological carbon cycles.

Lawrence Cohen writing at followuidai.wordpress.com has up a new post on the personal identity database system through which promises of a revised or reformed Indian modernity are being made. His main assertion: “India is now a database.

The link between database and identity, and database and carbon (the express valuation of carbon as identity) in the case of carbon registries deserves reflection. I re-post here comments I made there.

The Uidai database(s) parallels many aspects of carbon registries which are proliferating all over the place – these semi-autonomous data/reporting platforms through which companies report emissions and track their efforts to reduce quantified emissions. They’re also the basis of regulatory carbon markets. In interviews in Beijing I was struck that, in addition to several governmental efforts, several companies and NGOs were setting up carbon registries of various sorts and attempting to enrol polluters into voluntary submission of carbon emissions information.

One observation is that the information platform dominates, in terms of how the project is conceived and how people or companies might relate to it. This happens whether carbon is assigned monetary value or not (information itself seems to have value–or people setting up registries work hard to give it value, often while dreaming of perhaps being able to turn their registry into a carbon market in the future).

De-duplication is not the problem of these platform economies (Jane Guyer’s term), so perhaps the iteration I pose here repeats the Hegalian tension Lawrence marks between India and China at the outset. (Having no real area expertise in either, it’s difficult for me to say.) But if not de-duplication, then what?

As when Lawrence mentions Stephen Collier and James Ferguson’s respective reflection on potential forms of the neoliberal social, I recall a chapter from Marilyn Strathern’s After Nature, ‘The Greenhouse Effect.’ There she theorizes the plasticity of class formations through a strong participatory dimension on the one hand (her example is the proliferation of families who sell access to domestic space through the bed and breakfast) and the conversion of ‘relation’ conceived generically as ‘resource’ – so, for example, the idea that one’s family connections can be treated as a resource in the quest for upward mobility. The plasti-class is that which actively and intentionally participates in the game of maximizing resourcefulness; it is not bourgeois necessarily, just ambitious.

I note here that the key problem of these autonomous quasi-regulatory carbon platforms is enrolling companies into their voluntary reporting frameworks which, when achieved, seems amount to an active commitment in maximizing carbon resourcefulness. Attention thus turns to those who would be enrolled and, when enrolled, what they seem to be getting involved in. Needless to say, not that many companies are excited about these registries. But what Lawrence writes suggests a series of questions about commitment, his term, to these platforms of value which are thoroughly capitalist but not necessarily monetary. Are there echoes here for the Uidai de-duplication project? (Thinking of an earlier conversation – operability was a term of commitment; and I noticed that Lawrence flagged intractability at the outset as well. How does that fit in?)

Does ‘not necessarily monetary’ define a specific object? It would be wrong to say these are nonmonetary. Rather, the relation is different. It matters if the registries are monetary due to local design considerations, but there are many contexts in which it’s not necessary.

Actually I hesitated before writing ‘thoroughly capitalist’ just now, because the obvious point is that Chinese capitalism is precisely what is being problematized through these informational platforms. Recuperating that problematization would, I think, transform what I’ve just written. Carbon regulation is conceived here not as a necessary curative for climate change, but as an instrument for restructuring the economy through capital investment in less energy-intensive industries. Reciprocally, the discourse around China’s ‘low carbon life’ points to active reflection on work & consumption, in effect constantly raising the question of how to maintain happiness with respect to one’s work, how to consume in a reflective manner. To that extent, economic restructuring and the low carbon life both pose a degree of distance from growth per se and ask, in effect, how to grow appropriately. So then once again carbon reflects on not-necessarily-monetary value, or at least the possibility of holding that open as an option.

One point to push further is the association of carbon and identity. A significant complaint raised by companies is that carbon information is very sensitive – competitors might use it to understand a polluter’s production process, for example. Part of the way information is presumed to work especially in the context of data mining is that pattern itself reveals identity; for example I’ve written elsewhere about climate change fingerprints in the context of assessing whether ecological transformations bear causal relation to global warming. Likewise, the fetishization of information I describe in Accounting for Atmosphere toward the end of the paper suggests how ownership of information about carbon can be established as a highly aggressive act (the hackers’ term is ‘owning’). One last reference point: a major problem – even the major problem of the complex carbon accounting methodologies applied through these registries is the problem of carbon’s identity, that is, whose liability/opportunity inheres in the quantified relation.

All of this deserves more thought, but one initial observation is that the problem in the attribution of carbon is carbon’s identity, not that of the polluting entity, for a novel resource asset (‘carbon’) whose primary attribute is its planetary fungibility through which a ton of carbon everywhere is always presumed equal to a ton of carbon. In Accounting for Atmosphere I argue that carbon is a metric of the human, but here the relation is reversed – ‘is this carbon anthropogenic?’ And likewise the problem of duplication emerges again and again, to wit, does carbon information constitute a ‘second life‘ (Boellstorff) for carbon, the virtual repetition of a geological relation?

A poem by Joseph Fourier, with annotations in quotes

Part I: the primordial heat

when carrying a thermometer into the interior of the solid globe at great depths
it is the invariable temperature of deep places
the tenuous material strewn through various parts of space … such an assemblage of luminous or heated bodies
they all participate equally in the communal temperature

anywhere in the region of the heavens presently occupied by the solar system

de Saussure’s data suggest that Fourier erroneously continued to refer to [the values] as octogesimal [tr.]
“that is,  in units rendered by the difference between water’s boiling and freezing, divided by 80″
“Ferdinand de Saussure was grand-sired by a meteorologist.”

Part II: accessory causes [to] the secular cooling of the globe

mathematical expressions bereft of numerical application

the Earth, suddenly and almost entirely
the action of the atmosphere
the interposition of the atmosphere

For a globe made of iron
an interior fire, as a perpetual cause of several grand phenomena, has recurred in all the ages of Philosophy
…an immense time; there is no doubt about the truth of the conclusions, because I have calculated this time

above all the communication established by the currents: this last cause can totally change the results

[The text is from On the Temperatures of the Terrestrial Sphere and Interplanetary Space, Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier (1827), tr. R. T. Pierrehumbert]

Malcolm Bull’s review in the L.R.B. of A Perfect Moral Storm: The ethical tragedy of climate change by Stephen Gardiner (Oxford, 2011) poses the moral problematic of climate change in a profoundly fallacious way. The crux of his confusion is his idea that climate change is as remote as possible–temporally, spatially and humanly–from those who are called upon to care. The gesture is necessary for converting an issue with immediate stakes into what amounts to the economists’ unsolvable math problem of discount rates, which is to say, a technical method for determining how much we should care about climate change in financial terms.

One may surmise that posing a moral question in economic terms makes for suspect premises, but it is a lot more than that. For example, in his review, uncertainty starts as a scientific problem, but then becomes the presumption of distant climate effects which, strangely and wrongly, for Bull seem to bea priori unknowable. It is also apparent in the complete ambiguity of his use of the first person plural. Who is ‘we,’ in this essay, when one asks about climate change in concrete terms? Perhaps we should talk about the massive floods that pulsed through Bangkok last year, leaving some $54 billion in damages, most of it uninsured, and prompting the Thai government to promise foreign investors a taxpayer-backed $1.6 billion insurance pool to preempt complaints of under-funded and mismanaged public infrastructure. Rainfall that year has been estimated at almost three standard deviations above normal. Why are Thais paying for global capital’s weather risk, and why are insurers so severely underfunded?

Bull’s ultimate fallacy is the assumption that we are in a position to decide how much we are going to spend on climate change. But this is a joke. What have been the economic consequences of the Texas drought and wildfires, or the fires that have ripped across Russia? What are the economic stakes of Australia’s intense and as-yet unsolvable water problems? If for Bull the moral question of climate change is why we should care about other people, remote in time and space, it is because he systematically misrecognizes the immediacy of the stakes of climate change already underway and fast outpacing our ability to plan and anticipate.

One last thing holds together the tenuous fallacies of Bull’s moral quandary, and that is the incessant focus on atmospheric emissions. It is one thing to understand atmospheric CO2 as a driver or chemical mechanism, but it is a bit of fetishism to think it is the cause of climate change. The stakes of the Arctic are a case in point. “The ice that has long maintained the Arctic as a uniquely placid international space is receding rapidly,” write the authors of ‘Climate Change and International Security: The Arctic as Bellwether.’ They document the massive remilitarization of the Arctic and, in particular, Russia’s explicit national interest in exploiting vast, frozen fossil fuel reserves. Exxon has already signed a very large contract, on the order of hundreds of billions, with one of Gazprom’s subsidiaries.

These are some of the immediate, concrete manifestations of climate change itself. The newest petrostates are Canada and Russia, both of whom have recently rejected the Kyoto Protocol. Fossil energy extraction already accounts for some 20% of Russia’s GDP; the authors of that report quote Dmitry Medvedev claiming, “Our first and main priority is to turn the Arctic into Russia’s resource base for the twentieth century.” One might say that waiting for the ice to thaw in order to unearth those resources amounts to a practice of climate change per se. It’s not about the atmosphere, it’s about the geology–not the carbon footprint but the fossil bootprint.

One suspects, then, that posing climate change as a moral problem already is a mistake. It is a political problem of the first order, which means it is not an issue of how much we care about hypothetical others but how—in what ways—we may still be able to care for ourselves. That makes it a problem not of calculation but of work, achievement or commitment.

Here’s my recent paper The Prey of Uncertainty: Climate Change as Opportunity.

In this article I describe the post-Copenhagen moment in carbon markets and climate politics as one characterised by deep uncertainty. Uncertainty describes the social experience of emerging climate policy, but it is also business strategy. Uncertainty is necessary for markets to function. To understand this, I look toward practices of capitalism, which produce the future as indeterminate. Uncertainty is generated by business practices of treating conventions – rules and institutions, but also social conventions such as people’s ‘green’ expectations – in terms of their material opportunities. Treating conventions as always open to negotiation requires an ambitious or speculative ethos. Rather than projecting a stable vision of reality, nature or truth, these practitioners constantly ask, what can we do with these possibilities? I project that the near future will involve a proliferation of low-value, nontransparent carbon markets without any binding global cap on emissions.

The objective here is not only to capture the sense surrounding a rapid (and radical) market expansion over the period of 2008-2010, but to do so through practices we can associate with the new politics of possibility. As I argue in the paper, the issue here is creative work involved in manipulating diverse material connections. It is a kind of speculative realism, but one in which the speculation is that of actors whose work can be described ethnographically (see, for a different take, the post Apocalypse? Or Forward Curve?).

In fact, there is a metaphysical point to be made, in the sense that uncertainty entails a situation in which it is impossible to gain a stable vantage point or satisfactory perspective from which to assess climate futures. In this sense metaphysics is required by market actors themselves. They grasp toward a perspective on the real which is simply not available without metaphysical speculation. But, if so, their metaphysics so far is unrecognizable to philosophy.

A short piece I wrote for Work Style Magazine‘s Jan 2012 issue.

Nearly two decades of UN talk about climate change have not produced much in the way of concrete results. For businesses, the status quo of endless conventions presents a real problem. Many companies with significant carbon emissions are increasingly desperate for clear guidance on coherent, transnational climate policy, whether it comes through the United Nations or not. The EU’s carbon market is a case in point. While it has been in place since 2005, price volatility and outright low prices for carbon have not made investment decisions any easier.

2011 has been a record-breaking year in terms of losses, providing a sense of how chaotic climate change itself may unfold. Many companies are exposed to environmental risks especially via their global supply chains. Unfortunately, public resistance in the United States is a major problem for moving forward, even with the extreme drought in Texas and the steady march of convincing science. Businesses are in a position to take a much stronger leadership role, but they must think broadly about what they should advocate for.

Business needs clear climate policy because in a competitive system no one can act first without exposing themselves. Consulting, finance and insurance industries have all made significant strides in creating the right knowledge infrastructure for assessing regulatory and environmental risk. Institutional investors like mutual fund managers increasingly demand emissions data from the companies they invest in, but there is little comparable for smaller firms in spite of the potential cost savings.

Of course, the dirtiest industries, especially fossil energy extraction firms, are more than willing to forestall climate policy while still ramping up new investment in discovery, infrastructure and technology. Carbon Tracker estimates that a serious global climate policy will require 80% of proven fossil fuel reserves to remain locked underground. Risk for non-fossil energy commerce is amplified without a clear exit from the carbon trap.

Climate change means we must unwind from this dangerous situation. Everyone around the world can look toward a future of diminished expectations. People who are already economically and politically marginalized have little choice but to face increasingly restricted options. For Americans, addressing climate change represents a loss of important and pleasurable cultural symbols. Dirty industries must also recognize the diminished futures they can expect. We need an open acknowledgement of change, acceptance of diminished futures and a process of public mourning.

The IEA estimates climate investment postponed beyond 2020 will cost 4.3 times investment now, while the fossil fuel industry received six times more subsidies than renewables in 2010. In this context, stiff national carbon taxes look increasingly attractive for providing market and climate stability.

There is no reason businesses can’t advocate for strong climate commitments with governments and even the public. Leadership on climate requires a much more subtle, committed relationship with governments, the countries they operate in, and the people they depend on and serve. Companies like Nike or Alcoa are already very clear that climate is an important issue for them. To take one  example, how might Americans step to the challenge if high profile companies were publicly to champion clear, durable and robust climate rules?

Finally the EU has taken action on the HFC credits, which are miserably low quality offsets from destroying industrial gases for pennies on the Euro.

Of course the carbon market investors have been upset to see them go. Here’s what Bloomberg had to say about it, including a comment from me:

CO2 Investors say Ban on Certain Offsets Raises Risk
2011-01-24 16:18:12.475 GMT

By Catherine Airlie
Jan. 24 (Bloomberg) — The European Union’s vote to ban
certain types of United Nations offsets raises investment risks
and the cost of borrowing money, the Carbon Markets and
Investors Association said.
“It cannot be emphasized enough that stable regulation is
central to the ability to raise money for the fight against
climate change,” CMIA said in an e-mailed statement today. The
EU’s ban on some offsets goes against that, they said. “Doing
otherwise will reduce the pool of capital that is available, by
increasing the risk, and also the cost of capital.”
The EU’s 27 national governments agreed to ban as of May
2013 the use of UN-sponsored offsets linked to
hydrofluorocarbon-23 and some nitrous oxide credits. EU Climate
Commissioner Connie Hedegaard welcomed the member states’
decision on industrial gas offsets, saying the credits that are
to be banned created a perverse incentive for investors.
Environmental groups including CDM Watch support the
restrictions. Investors in HFC-23 projects, including Italy’s
Enel SpA, had called on the commission and member states to
limit the scope of the ban and delay its entry into force.
“If investors want a durable, long-term, stable carbon
market they need to champion the regulations that will best
address climate change,” Jerome Whitington, a climate
specialist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, said
by e-mail. “Their protest over the change in rules now seems
disingenuous at best, and the short-term interests of investors
should remain low priority for policy makers.”

This news piece from Nature summarizes some of the climate communication problems with respect to ‘dire messaging’ and the problematic of belief. Dire messages about the future, they have found, serve to strengthen disbelief in climate change. But their essentially psychologistic approach doesn’t take into account some of the distinctions I’ve been emphasizing in my last couple of posts, namely that for some people anticipation of the future is presentist and hinges on descriptions of the future as closed, whereas for others the issue is multiple possible, i.e. uncertain, futures which might be worked with dynamically. In the latter case, these potential futures are not posed as a problem of belief; whereas in order to understand the former one must take up belief as a social fact.

Incidentally, some anthropologists have argued for a similar dynamic regarding social conservatism and transgression, in which transgression is analogous to the dire warnings some climate communicators have used. Transgression functions as a liminal practice which ruptures established social order only to re-affirm that social order as a consolidated formation. I don’t think any of that is particularly surprising from an anthropological perspective, but it does imply – if I’m right that different modes of futurity are in circulation – that the target for research should be climate change practices which do not hinge on belief per se.

I have an article submitted to American Anthropologist which argues that uncertainty is a perspective. Uncertainty is not the absence of certainty as a problem of philosophical foundations or adequate scientific knowledge, but rather a normative claim or orientation toward action. In this sense its primary mode is evaluative (I draw on Canguilhem to make this claim) and it posits a politics in terms of a normative determination of the future. I look toward environmental entrepreneurialism in Lao hydropower management to make the argument that uncertainty becomes a relevant term for practice because there has emerged an ethos that is much more comfortable working with uncertainty rather than fighting it all the time. One sees this transformation in certain practices of expertise, for instance, which take a certain pleasure in getting into the weeds. Their’s is more exuberance than jouissance.

I also get into why I think Michel Callon et al miss the mark in their recent book Acting in an Uncertain World. They pose uncertainty as a problem of action but they do not recognize how actors deliberately create uncertainty, how uncertainty becomes a potential for play or dynamism or how in some cases it is to be minimized whereas in other cases it is to be elaborated. For instance they rail against vested interests who present manipulated scientific results, who use the veil of science to confuse honest public debate about science. And they hold up sincerity of public debate as the hallmark of a reasoned participatory technical democracy. But like Latour’s Dingpolitik, what they present attempts to guarantee neutrality for a ‘flat’ ecology of practices. And to do so they think they can reliably exclude manipulated science from real science, insincerity from sincere engagement. Isn’t that simply to re-inscribe the problem of belief?

Yesterday the Dems were obliged to use a procedural rule to push the climate bill through the Environment and Public Works panel. Republicans were happy enough to ridicule the process by abstaining from any involvement, and there’s enough Democratic ambivalence about the Kerry-Boxer climate bill to make this standoff a big deal.

On the international front, especially with the UNFCCC meetings in Barcelona underway, the sense is that Obama can’t deliver Congress and therefore, whatever his views about the importance of climate change, the US is not in any position to put offers on the table in Copenhagen. It was a telling sign and also (in my opinion) a step in the right direction that the African delegates walked out this week. Sparks need to fly at this point.

But frankly I think there is room to push Obama a lot harder on this. I was on a conference call this week with a policy think tank dedicated to issues of concern for African-Americans with a long-standing commitment to environmental justice as well as a new climate policy commission. They released a poll last month demonstrating that 58% of African-Americans feel that global warming  is a major problem – at a time when concern among the general population is waning dramatically. The general sense was that an effort should be put forward for prominent black officials to indicate publicly the disconnect between Obama’s efforts and African-American constituencies.

Maybe it’s worth pointing out that no one can expect the general population to care about climate change in the same way that it might advocate for, say, health care. Global warming was identified as a threat by elite scientists, many holding political and cultural views that divorced them from the concerns of that broad swath of Americans trapped in the middling modern suburban landscapes of the 1980s and 90s. The battleground positions were laid around skepticism of the science, suspicion of environmentalism as a cultural project,  and a struggle over growth and jobs – at a time of falling real wages, highly aggressive corporate strategies, the wholesale erosion of many Americans’ financial  security, and collapse of civic involvement, education and public investment. Americans got screwed, and no one’s really managed to put that on the table very well. No wonder people aren’t too eager about now having to cope with the fact that US elite, with the collusion of a very thin segment of foreign elite, have been systematically impoverishing the rest of the world too.

For that matter, it’s worth pointing out that a lot of American industries and businesses have also been screwed, especially by big finance. A recent letter from the Commodity Markets Oversight Coalition, a trade lobbying group, expresses a profound sense of unease at the prospect of a volatile, unregulated carbon market. Combine that with recent speculation in energy markets and you get the picture. Indeed, many people are increasingly frustrated at the very tight connections between the administration and some of the most pernicious financial brokers operating today. Frank Rich is not the only one to express relief that states are now able to prosecute financial institutions for predatory loan practices. The ‘regulators’ in Obama’s administration are the people who engineered the financial crisis.

The finance issues aside, my sense is that climate change is a perfect opportunity for Obama the politician, the orator. Someone is going to have to make a convincing case to Americans that climate change is and will be the defining issue of international politics for the next 50 years. The task of the rhetorician is not now to ‘convince’ Americans to go along with a political move that merely floats on top of a deeply fractured public basically unaware of the contradictions it faces. Americans aren’t that dumb, and Republicans won’t let the politicians get away with it. Eventually Democrats are going to have to confront that populist anger. But, as with his speech on race during the campaign, President Obama has a phenomenal capacity to say what needs to be said at the right time – especially when the issues revolve around profound historical injustices. It’s time for an emancipation proclamation that diagnoses the ugliness of the American century in such a way that Americans can see with the rest of the world a realistic program for a near-term global future.

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