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Amelia Moore asked me today about why I’m using atmosphere as a figure for the project. Specifically:
It’s a great question, and I’ve been meaning to be specific about what was really an intuitive decision on my part. So let me try for an answer.
1) It’s figurative – I like its poetic quality, and I feel like an attention to writing as aesthetic and conceptual is justified.
2) Carbon assets/offsets are the commodity – they have a very clear ontology. “Commercial grade carbon” refers to something highly abstract but made real. Yet consider this question – If I decide to stop eating meat and to ride my bike everywhere, what are the long term consequences of this for climate change? The atmosphere is something like a strange machine, full of uncertainty, into which I put my ethics and politics with the expectation that some kind of net change will be manifest in some relatively distant future. So a different, global version of this is how carbon markets might connect to a global regulatory regime.
3) ‘Climate’ may be a substitute term, but I think it’s not quite adequate. I like atmosphere because it’s less common, so there’s less confusion about whose term it is (it’s mine – not a ‘native’ term, who are after all a lot of different people of no particular common sociological group).
4) The ontological question is not exactly a question of discourse, so I’m not sure it’s crucial to trace the genealogy of a term that enters into circulation with particular truth-effects. I’m thinking about an object with inherent uncertainty that’s only necessary to know as an ethical and political problem in the contemporary moment.
5) People do use ‘atmosphere’, some. An activist I interviewed today at EcoEquity told me that ‘there is no atmospheric space left’. In order to make this claim he explained a complex quantification argument (Meinshausen et. al, Nature 458, 1158-1162 30 April 2009) in which was calculated the total volume of of allowable carbon-equivalent emissions between 2000 and 2050 if we are to have a 75% chance to keep the temperature change below 2 degrees C (a benchmark figure for negotiations). That total figure, he said, is 1000 Gigatons, or 1 Teraton. Between 2000-2006, global emissions were about 234 Gt – i.e. ~25% of the ration in just 7 years! So ‘atmosphere’ (atmospheric space) functioned as a metaphor that allowed him to make a claim about how we’d better get our global emissions cap together fast. And it’s not totally a metaphor. The atmosphere has volume, and the greater proportion of CO2 in that volume the greater global warming. (Interestingly, it may be that I’m implicitly positioning myself very close to this group’s work, which in fact has been important to my thinking.)
So ‘climate’ is definitely in the mix, but I want atmosphere to specify this connection between current costly action and future-oriented risk or opportunity. Risk or opportunity is a function of how climatic & market systems behave, which is very tricky to know. Atmosphere is the temporal political problem as a function of what the authors above call “a representative estimate of the distribution of climate system properties.” The atmosphere is an object of knowledge such that it becomes a site of apprehension, anticipation, investment, opportunism, ethical reflection and political evaluation and negotiation…
It turns out one of the most interesting sites for emissions quantification work is the DC-based World Resources Institute. Consider this point from their review of forestry-related emissions assets in developing countries:
“For carbon financing to work, developing countries need to demonstrate that they can quantify market-quality emission reductions at either a subnational or a national level. This includes setting credible baselines (known as reference scenarios) showing that deforestation has not simply shifted from one place to another (known as leakage) and making certain that the emissions reductions will be permanent.“
What interests me here is how the quantification requirements needed to create commercial-grade carbon assets form the intersection of carbon finance and human practices in developing countries. Those with a perspective critical of development institutions, especially governance work, will quickly point out that the most likely scenario is that the credibility of these assets will be weak, but they will remain tradable anyway because a) they’re valuable and b) there are few short-term consequences to poorly enforced standards. This is the sort of concern raised often by NGOs – WRI, for instance – and they do so out of an understanding of their own watchdog role concerning climate change mitigation.
Another possibility is markedly increased seriousness about these kinds of problems, and development of new techniques for capacity training, measurement and verification, and governance credibility.
From a research perspective, the important thing to note is that we have no obligation to decide in advance whether to be cynics (I mean realists) or optimists. We also are not obliged to use research as a way to decide whether or not carbon assets are credible. In fact, we can note that as under-resourced as they are critical NGOs have been keeping track of these issues even if not in the detail the issues deserve. Different disciplines can approach novel questions.
An anthropological approach might pose these concerns in terms of intersecting domains of human practices. We have carbon markets – people buying and selling carbon commodities. We have quantification practices – say, WRI, the carbon auditing organizations, the work sellers must do to produce standardized assets, the concern buyers have in ensuring enforcement is rigorous. And we have the governance work of (in this case) developing countries with forest-based assets, the watchdog groups, the capacity building initiatives. Within these domains of human practices, conceptual problems can be posed – say, the structures of power/knowledge, problems of space and distribution, whether or not any decisive shift has occurred in the interminable problems of development interventions, the status of development as redistribution, the links between politics and capitalism. . .
For me the strongest question concerns the relational ontology of atmosphere that emerges from these numerical informational practices. Specifically, the object being constructed is the carbon asset, but this bears a relation to ‘atmosphere,’ namely the long term stakes of climate stability, rights to climate security as well as rights to economic ‘use’ of the atmosphere. A relational ontology approach here foregrounds the connection ethics-ontology, which is to say the mutual relation of subject and object. (In a future post I will make the case that ethics slides into politics, putting into question the choice of terms I use here – or perhaps noting the ways ethics and politics become indistinct within practices of liberalism characterized by personal action.)
Like the emergence of long term climate scenario modeling and its role in making climate change a real issue, the tension here is between remarkably different time scales. Specifically, atmosphere is medium- to long-term, punctuated by intense climate events. But commercial transactions are short term, while market emergence is medium term at best – say 10-30 years. Shifts in US policy on climate change at the tail-end of the Bush administration were in part the effect of industry demands for clear signals on climate policy. But the other side of this, as Nicholas Stern (The Global Deal,2009) points out, is that an ethical question has to be posed about the rights of people who don’t exist yet.
Fascinatingly, economists routinely discount the value of future lives at a striking rate. Stern argues that this makes no sense ethically or politically, and instead the only legitimate ethical discount for future lives is that there is some possibility that some catastrophic event will end life on earth (say, a meteor strikes the planet). This, too, is quantified. Nordhaus, one of the most prominent climate economists who he takes to task for being misguided on this point, uses a discount rate of 2%. 1.5% is also common. “If a pure-time discount rate of 2% is selected, then a life that starts in 2010 would be assigned approximately twice the social value of a life that starts in 2045. … In other words, someone born later counts for less. In effect, this is discrimination by date of birth” (83). Stern uses an annual rate of 0.1% to account for the possibility of the demise of humanity by some cause other than climate change.
The time discounting concern for economists poses a specific ethical (political) problem (which economists may or may not take up) because the discipline addresses the issue of putting long term climate risks in terms of costly short term decisions. The ethical problem is inherent in the ontology of atmosphere, which has a specific temporal and risk character. So, in some sense this is a different version of the ethics-ontology question posed above in terms of forestry emissions reductions.
The relational ontology as I’ve posed it has to do with the different time scales of carbon assets and atmosphere but, as we see in very specific terms concerning ecological practices in developing countries, the relational ontology always maps onto spatial extention and related distributional effects. Here, quite literally, the temporal object atmosphere manifests in the detailed interactions between people in developing countries, practices of forest ecology, and the embodied, enforced enumeration of commercial grade carbon.
Funny, I wonder if the economists have a discount rate for people who live in other countries (instead of in the future). Or maybe the insurance companies keep track of that?
I love this comment’s economy, how it foregrounds an experientially provocative relationship to the atmosphere and its evocation of human habit as potentially lethal.
“I’d encourage the skeptics over the man-made climate change to think of the sky in Beijing. The current consumption of dirty, noxious energy reminds me of human smoking habit.” –hsr0601, June 27, 2009
I found the post in the public comments section on a NY Times editorial recently.