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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.
CDM Watch is truly one of my favorite carbon market NGOs. As mentioned in a previous post, they have played a decisive role in breaking off carbon offsets from HFC gases from the European carbon market, prompting Geoff Sinclair, a prominent carbon trader at Standard Bank Plc, to declare them to be a “junk market.”
It is a hallmark of the Clean Development Mechanism that it is still happy producing HFC offsets even though no one wants to buy them.
In the meantime, CDM Watch has pushed its decisive activist methodology into new dimensions. Most notably, they have spearheaded the campaign to eliminate financing for coal infrastructure in the Clean Development Mechanism.
Bloomberg recently caught up with Anja Kollmuss, formerly of the Stockholm Environment Institute, who spends her time detailing the numbers games that have made the CDM into a rotten institution.
Writes Catherine Airlie (subscription only): “Loopholes in current policies to tackle climate change may add as much as 27 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2020, according to a report from CDM Watch, a Brussels-based environmental group.”
“Countries may get away with ruses and ploys in the world of politics,” Anja Kollmuss, a policy analyst at CDM Watch, said in an e-mailed statement. “But nature does not go for accounting tricks.”
Angelica Ospina at Notes on ICTs, Climate Change and Development has set up an interesting post on adaptation information ontologies. You know you’re in for something worthwhile when the piece begins with this statement:
Determining the repercussions of the changing climate is a field of great unknowns.
But what I really like is that she doesn’t assume the only objective is to get rid of uncertainty. She asks, “should the quest for ‘certainty’ be the focus of our attention?” Truth be told, as a problem for management climate change and climate adaptation must necessarily involve finding ways to grapple productively with uncertainty rather than attempting overarching control. People who work with nature understand this, and climate adaptation is precisely this.
I love it that she positions this as a problem of information technology. I would like to put up what Lev Manovich calls remediation as a concept to think through. Remediation involves translating a relation into different media in order that it may be manipulated in different ways. New media technologies are paramount for this, and as I’ve been arguing carbon markets are meant to remediate human intervention in the carbon cycle. Markets as information strategies must be understood as integrated in the geological carbon cycle (to the extent that they work!). Rabinow points out that remediation involves subjecting an existing relationship to a new form of mediation, but that it is a matter also of improvement or positing a remedy as a practical matter. For Thacker, remediation inevitably involves creative manipulation. Hence Ospina concludes:
The need to reduce uncertainty should not substitute efforts to foster creativity and flexibility, which lie at the core of resilient responses to the ongoing challenges posed by climate change.
That implies a different relationship to nature.
I have been surprised at the persistence of doubt about climate change science among anthropologists. There are lots of strains to this doubt but, partly, it is surprising because it re-frames many debates from the old ‘science wars.’ This time, the politically conservative position points again and again to the constructed nature of science, whereas those on the left tend to accept the science as a matter of course. For environmental anthropologists a rift has opened up. Climate concerns have the tendency to trump or swamp other environmental concerns. Those other concerns, often much older, are motivated by a tendency toward libertarianism and organic intellectualism (no pun intended). No matter how you spin it, climate change is not.
As I’m involved in studying climate change as an anthropological topic – what I sometimes refer to as the ‘cultural significance of climate change’ – I am often called upon to take judgement on the veracity of climate change science. This is an extremely tricky topic, but one I think anthropologists need to confront directly. Personally, I feel that statements such as by the National Academy of Sciences are judiciously true, by which I mean it must remain open to revision, while the IPCC is true enough for government work. But that is not the point. To claim the science is true and then ask why people don’t believe it is intellectually & ethically stingy.
Debates on the Environmental Anthropology email list, however, often seem to conflate our responsibilities as scholars, as citizens, and – the point that unites those two – as lovers of truth and freedom.
To be sure, I don’t consider myself an expert on the climate science, and my interest is far more in global attempts to deal with climate change by managing the atmosphere. But I think it is crucial for anthropologists of climate change to find an analytical mode in which doubts about the science can be expressed by groups with diverse commitments. Doubts about climate science are integral to the cultural significance of climate change. All of climate science is organized around a problem of anticipating an uncertain future. Hence it plays into the quasi-apocalyptic fears of American religions, whether of ecological end-times or of political domination by financial Illuminati. But it plays into other things as well – financial strategies, for instance.
There is a long-standing tradition of anthropologists studying rumor and gossip, which aptly recognizes that determining the truth of a rumor is irrelevant from the perspective of the anthropologist. Rumors don’t circulate because they are true, but because the possibility that they might be true is dangerous.
The challenge for citizens is different than that of scholars. As citizens we are called upon to respond to public problems and ecological dangers; we must assess the science (as citizens, not as scientists), come to conclusions and pursue action. Even if the science is 100% certain, the action will always be characterized by uncertainty. Why? Because political action is irreversible, unpredictable and prone to failure. Political practice happens ‘in time’ in a way that is very different from drawing scientific conclusions. There are lots of different ways to put a price on carbon, for instance. All of them have important risks, and if I’m an investor, your risk is my opportunity.
And yet these problems of action must also fit within the anthropological, scholarly framework. We have seen this problem before; it was called reflexivity.
Philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers makes an important observation about Creationism which strikes me as relevant here. She argues that normal biological science – Darwinism – is often treated as unproblematic, transparently factual, unconstructed, ‘neutral’ – all of the things STS has called into question. Calling attention to parents’ committees, pressure groups, and other forms of organizing, she writes, “It is as if collectives were needed, capable of providing organized resistance, tenacious and fanatic, to certain types of knowledge, so that the transmission of that knowledge in schools might acknowledge its risky, selective, interesting mode of existence – the very thing that demonstrates its scientific nature” (Cosmopolitics I, 268, n.3).
I am not trying to associate Creationism with any of the comments that have been made by anthropologists. My point is different.
But before I make this point, let me draw one more connection, now between climate skeptic positions and those of political radicals in the far-left ‘climate justice’ camp. There are important parallels. Both tend to take a dire view of the future, neither are particularly subtle about how scientific conclusions are used in debate, both worry a lot about the role of money in science and policy, both are afraid of social-engineering solutions (such as carbon markets) and both tend to exaggerate the political importance of authoritative bodies, especially the UN, whether from an anti-authoritarian or a regulatory view point. Both worry obsessively about American consumer entitlement while referencing US global military dominance – both for good reason.
So it strikes me that the debates we’ve been having on E-Anth are unsurprising from a broader social perspective – they deal with many of the same issues that characterize American debates more generally and they resonate with problems surrounding not individual scientific conclusions per se but the conditions in which that knowledge was produced, the work it is expected to do, and especially the implications of that science for existing human practice.
The solution – it seems to me – to the analytical puzzle is to point out that the experience of climate change is one of threat/opportunity before an uncertain future. This even applies to how climate change became a scientific problem. But as the science has become accepted, an implication is that lots of people take climate change as an opportunity, and this opportunism is threatening. To use Stengers’ words, climate science is risky, selective, interesting – it is real science – because it is risky, selective & interesting sociopolitically. The possibility that climate science might be true is dangerous – not only because of biophysical atmospheric changes – and this danger is what we anthropologists might be discussing, as lovers of truth & freedom.
Writing from the UN climate conference in Copenhagen, against a backlog of blogging and research write-up:
A couple people (thanks to Adam Henne) have asked my thoughts on George Soros’s proposal to fund climate change adaptation based on re-working the rules for Special Drawing Rights reserves. The idea seems to be simple enough and, to be honest, not that ground-breaking. Significant funds are kept in reserve, backed by gold to be used for liquidity purposes. Soros wants that money to be invested in adaptation, on the basis of a fund that would generate $10 billion a year. How that surplus would be generated seems to be the main outstanding question. But more generally, we can see in broad scope some of the reasons why anthropologists might pay attention to these things.
There’s been some confusion about the currency at stake here, which bears some explaining in order to understand the significance of climate finance. Especially American observers were a bit freaked out when the New York Times described SDRs as “a “virtual currency” with a value set by a basket of real currencies.” SDRs are an multilateral finance currency which forms the basis of development aid and other multilateral commitments; they refer (if I understand correctly) to potential claims on held cash reserves. For instance, the very low interest loans made available to least developing countries by the multilateral banks are drawn in SDRs – when I paid attention to such things circa 2005 these loans were often reported in ‘dollar equivalents’ with a dollar being worth about 2/3 an SDR, if I remember correctly.
But the point to be made is that in fact lots of currencies like this exist. The comment on the NY Times article by SteveG is correct, but frankly belated: “CDOs and flash trading aside, the era of “nexus economics” is upon us, i.e., a time of rapid changes in economic structures, transactions, and individual behaviors wrought by a highly connected world.” One wonders if all currencies aren’t virtual, with paper cash being simply secondary to electronic, calculated values. Carbon credits themselves are another kind of currency, and some people wonder whether a global carbon market will in fact establish a global currency based on atmospheric exchange.
Think about it: put carbon into the atmosphere in one place on Earth and accrue an obligation (e.g. buy a carbon credit on the market) – or take carbon out of the atmosphere somewhere else on Earth and establish a credit (i.e. an actual financial instrument that can be exchanged for other currencies). These are the sorts of practices I have tried to capture with the admittedly academic phrase ‘the relational ontology of atmosphere’. It’s because ‘carbon’ and ‘the atmosphere’ are simultaneously abstract, equivalent and global that it’s possible to imagine human relations on this order, always translated in practice in terms of what one can ‘do’ with a particular currency. Carbon emissions, like labor in Marxist theory, are a fact of economic activity, so an integrated carbon market could hypothetically trace alongside markets based on national currencies (again, this is nothing new; it’s the scale and scope of carbon markets that make the idea provocative).
It would be great for Caroline McLoughlin to weigh in on this, if she’s reading. By the way, as I type near the Forum in Copenhagen I can here the police cannons, helicopters and general mobilization around protests apparently along the river and toward the city center.
On the one hand, carbon currency is already in operation, and traders routinely talk about carbon credits as currencies. On the other hand, the global scope of such a system is basically hypothetical, with global carbon markets a long way off. A report yesterday here in Copenhagen, where I’ve been talking to people about these things, argued that establishing and unifying regional carbon markets might result in a global market perhaps by 2024. (PointCarbon estimates the volume of carbon trading in 2020 will be about 3$ trillion; the head of Derivatives and Structured Finance at the World Bank confirmed yesterday to me that they use this estimate in their work. Global trading is >20 $ trillion, so perhaps 10-15% in 2020?) The more fundamental issue is that if climate change is to be dealt with seriously then the volume of new credits will have to approach zero in the last half of the century, at the same time that traders are increasingly invested in a large market. Michael Wara at Stanford has already noted that offsets have created a significant political lobby for products that do little to help reduce emissions. The idea of a unified global carbon currency would be in conflict with the basic need to decarbonize the economy.
Concerning Soros’s proposal, four things seem apparent. First, Soros is asking the SDR currency hosts to reduce their liquidity reserve. This is money administered by the IMF (and development banks) in times of need when countries don’t have enough cash to meet their short-term obligations. When Soros says we need innovative financial mechanisms, he’s actually asking for a higher-risk financial position that would reduce the IMF’s ability to respond to these needs (unless he suggests some provision to take money out of the fund in a crisis, but I haven’t heard anything about this). I suppose it would take liquidity out of national reserves for the currencies that make up SDRs, namely the Dollar, Euro, Yen and Pound.
Second, while it’s not exactly clear, to generate the proposed $10 billion a year the money would be invested for a decent rate of return. How the $10 billion annual return is used for adaptation doesn’t matter very much; how the $100 billion is invested to achieve a 10% the return is what counts at this stage. I suppose that’s where Soros comes in – put baldly (if speculatively), George wants access to that money, and climate change seems like moral reason enough to ask for it. One suspects he would be using the money for something and it would be good to know what (especially if it’s being leveraged). But does this mean George Soros is facing investment flow problems? It seems there’s lots of unanswered questions here.
Third, the publicly-announced ‘idea’ for this fund is not a new idea the stodgy banker-types don’t want to hear because they can’ t think outside the box. He announced it this way to stimulate some level of public interest in releasing the money.
Finally, in terms of the proposal, all the real work remains in figuring out how to do adaptation. The idea simply puts up returns on the investment to be used for climate adaptation, which so far is both relatively vague on how it would be spent and subject to the normal caveats about development-type interventions. The rule of thumb among consultants who evaluate development projects is that a project with 10% lasting effect is about the most one can hope for (this was for livelihood rural development work in Southeast Asia). Of course, it spells disaster if adaptation interventions are only 10% successful. Much more work needs to be done on the operational problems for spending adaptation money smartly, and the whole wealth of criticism – technical and otherwise – of development needs to be invoked here.
A lot of people of a certain stripe working in environmental organizations – let’s call them, say, goodwill institutionalists – organize their approach to environmental activism around a believe that it matters how decision makers care about the environment. They believe in socialization or ‘training’ in the sense of training government officials or perhaps decision makers in business to think environmentally.
It implies a subject of will – “political will” for instance as is often battered about in public discourse as the “cause” for insufficient action – whose goodwill inclines the person to make ethical choices in the form of difficult/costly decisions. Such will is expected to hold the line on short-term gain.
This approach dovetails with what Larry Lohmann sardonically calls ‘the most naive environmentalism’ duped so easily by – and allied so often with – the most cynical market gamers. It’s not exactly liberal environmentalism, although the two no doubt overlap considerably. For instance, this absolutely does not apply to strategies of WRI or NRDC.
The emphasis on will derives from a structured understanding of how decision-making works – short-term gain is naturally powerful but people are social creatures and norms wrought in socialization can be powerful. It also hinges on a particular understanding of how organizations work – training ensues in order to demonstrate work procedures, which are basically bureaucratic (and hence mundane) but in the office milieu operate to ensure values are included in specific ways. Bureaucratic black holes like hallway interactions, country clubs, smoke-filled rooms and the like constitute a dark terror to the bureaucratic imagination.
Whether or not these people’s descriptions of the world hold water is one question. But before we ever get there, we can note that these subjects of will imagine the world in such a way that they are able to perform their own existence – in their goodness holding the line against short terms gain. So they willfully toil against all odds at the center of a mundane bureaucratic apparatus, stricken with terror that somewhere, in some bright casual interaction, the important decisions are being made without them.
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.
[My claim about the numbers in this post is wrong; please see the correction above.]
Felicity Barringer’s recent article ‘White roofs catch on as energy cutters’ appears to contain a serious error. It implies that the annual emissions of CO2 equivalent is 24 billion tons, when in fact, for 2005, it was more than 44 trillion tons. That’s like pretending 50 cents is equivalent to a thousand dollars.
(Photo from lizziebcre8tive.com – thanks lizzie!)
Given the popularity of the article [and NY Times readers' propensity toward quick fixes!], I suppose the bigger question, assuming the figure comes from Art Rosenfeld, whom it’s attributed to, is what happened to your fact checkers, and why is a reputable scientist talking up a figure that’s wrong by three orders of magnitude?
[I love that what's at stake here is the seriousness of quantification practices! Does anyone remember the Modern Love article on Shamu from a couple years ago? It was the most emailed for like 10 weeks. The idea that global warming could be stopped if we just paint our roofs white is sort of like in the Shamu article, in which we can all get along with our mates if we train them like wet and cuddly captive creatures.]