Over the past several weeks I’ve become motivated to closely examine critical theory approaches to climate change. Most recently, I’ve been inspired by the limitations of object-oriented philosophy or what some are calling speculative realism, such as Levi Bryant’s recent lament that there is no hope for the climate and we might as well consign ourselves to a potlatch fossil energy conflagration. Bruno Latour’s now famous argument ‘From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern’ also hinges on climate change and, like Bryant’s, it is also inadequate from any empirically-informed stand point. But so what? Does it matter to critical theory? Does critical theory matter to a social science of climate change?

The real question, it seems to me, is not to hammer the philosophy-types because they aren’t empirically grounded – nothing could be more pointless from my view – but rather to ask whether work that’s a little less caught up in the intricacies of practice can help formulate relevant questions for an empirically-informed ‘fieldwork in philosophy.’ In other words, what is needed is neither a catalog of minutae nor theory from the troposphere, but a range of meso theorizations that provide a grasp on contemporary transformations.

The loud sucking noise created from the collapse of Foucault-inspired critical social science in the US hasn’t really abated much over the past few years. My own dissatisfaction with the range of alternatives – Latour, Deleuze, whatever – has been heightened by the totally unsurprising realization in the course of my dissertation writing that those approaches has little to say about what was patently important in the field, and even less of a commitment to sussing out the demands empirical work should make on theory. To top it off, I still find convincing Rabinow’s proposition that we shouldn’t be doing theory. Rather, the challenge is to identify what’s critical and then create the necessary equipment. Subsequently, the conceptual work I have found most useful has been far less over-arching, less tied to any God-figure, and a lot more mobile.

But a specific disappointment remains – namely, whether there is capacity to think the broader significance of events or processes such as climate change, beyond the analytical demands. In other words, maybe even if we’re still within the space created when life enters history, the bottom up approach of analyzing ‘practices, instruments and techniques’ (as a recent very awesome workshop hosted by Amy Levine and Andrea Ballestero pegged it) seems insufficient to the scale of the transformations we are witnessing.

Granted, we are so close to so many potentially monumental historical moments. One doesn’t even know what questions to ask when scientists begin formulating concepts like Anthropocene, or for that matter when geothermal engineers trigger swarms of earthquakes by injecting pressurized water kilometers deep in seismically active fault zones. At the very least we are at an intensely generative moment. But the other side of the analytical coin is that our critical tools for understanding culture – power – history are really good now. I mean, they are fabulously good. The wealth of critical resources, far from having played themselves out, have instead obviated many of the questions that motivated them.

When I started the Accounting for Atmosphere project, two overarching framings dominated: first, that the political project of dealing with climate change was to create a global regime to manage atmospheric chemistry; and second, that the primary technical mode for this dwelt on intensive quantification regimes at several scales (national carbon budgets, carbon finance (markets), and enterprise accounting (businesses, etc). All of this still holds, and many of the practices, instruments and techniques in play are excited loci of dynamic transformation. Indeed, there is a rapidly expanding literature on carbon markets, including luminaries such as Donald MacKenzie and Michel Callon.

On the other hand, there is Critical Theory Climate Blah Blah, which is sort of like Video Killed the Radio Star, I mean, there are a host of old and new hats weighing in on climate change who just don’t know much about it, or maybe they know something, a little bit, but are prone to speculation because they too easily recognize in climate change their own specific intellectual commitments.

Let me take an example I like: Peter Sloterdijk’s nifty Semiotext(e) volume Terror from the Air. To me, this is an exciting book – I very much sympathize with how he formulates a problematic around chemical warfare in terms of a trio of environment, design and atmosphere. But Sloterdijk’s short little passage on climate change just doesn’t cut it. It’s banal. It’s generic. Climate is a stand in for what he already thinks. At any rate, it’s just one example. Another example – one I really have not much sympathy for – is Brian Massumi’s ‘National Enterprise Emergency: Steps toward an ecology of powers’ (TCS, 2009).

Having established now in three different papers what I think is critically relevant for these contemporary transformations, over the next few months I’ll shift from using the blog as a platform for critical empirical analysis toward some public thinking-through on the critical theory lit.

We need a critical theory of planetary relations. We need a critical geology and a critical take on atmospherics. We need a biopolitics that does not confuse active critical politics about the future with the many brute instruments of control. We need a take on speculation that is not deliberately weighted down by metaphysics, and a critical analysis of ecology that doesn’t get lost in infinite connection. Many loose threads are floating around: the task is to try and collect them into something – a web, a cocoon, a fabric.

Hello all – I’m happy to report that a draft of my Accounting for Atmosphere article has now been submitted for review –  I’ve also posted it on my academic website. You should be able to access it here, and the abstract is below. This will one day become the book… now I’ve only to write it. No doubt it will go through further permutations before seeing the light of print, so do contact me before citing it. Comments are always deeply appreciated.

Accounting for Atmosphere: Climate Futures, Climates Past (under peer review)

Jerome Whitington, National University of Singapore

Among other things, the anthropological significance of climate change is that it represents an emergent attempt to manage the chemical composition of the atmosphere. Such a project is built around carbon accounting techniques as the core infrastructures for regulating the human practices that emit greenhouse gases. While the project may well fail, this perspective is held by the actors themselves—calling attention to environmentalism as the politics of possibility, distinct from an older politics of prudence, limits and necessity. Carbon accounting, far from normalizing numbers into a predictable knowledge regime, instead builds new techniques of mediation into durable infrastructures, what Rabinow calls remediation. Following Chris Kelty’s work with free software ‘geeks,’ I ‘model’ this activity along two axes, working with numbers, in which quantification infrastructure creates the capacity for work in a politically vexed situation, and thinking through things, in which the infrastructure enables people to think through the futures of climate policy even while they use things to think with. Building conceptual relations into durable forms is a sort of experimental practice in which understanding the implications of one’s assumptions—even those poorly understood or unacknowledged—is a public, embodied and physically extensive practice. But this makes new techniques of living prone to error. Such could describe climate change itself.

Xinhua reports today that the Chinese government has banned Chinese airlines from participating in the EU carbon markets, which is required by European law. It sets the stage for a showdown over climate rules increasingly interpreted in terms of international trade.

Some critics of carbon markets have expressed a certain degree of satisfaction in seeing the EU’s market agenda thwarted. It is true the market approach is increasingly unconvincing.

But it strikes me that the obvious point to make here is not the critique of market mechanisms. Rather, will global climate policy will be held hostage to trade in the spirit of the WTO’s Doha round – which is to say, in the spirit of failure? There are of course lots of reasons why major industrial polluters would like to forestall something serious as long as possible. This is evidence of some of the worst tendencies concerning climate policy fragmentation. The worst possible outcome for global climate policy is that it be managed in the way international trade negotiations have been managed. Climate justice activists should rather be increasingly forceful in arguing for a novel political ontology of the atmosphere.

The EU’s purpose in establishing this rule seems to be to maintain some leverage in international climate negotiations, since it has already given away everything and the spoils go to those who hold out.

As far as carbon markets go, I see two things happening. Within the EU ETS, the airline rule is being used to set up EU-wide registries (currently these are managed by individual member sates), so one could argue the rule is helping consolidate carbon markets against individual member states’ sometimes recalcitrance to toe the EU agenda. But I think globally we will see Pacific Rim carbon markets set up as ‘equivalent measures’ that will allow, say, Chinese airlines to opt out of EU rules because they buy offsets on the Shanghai exchange. China is pursuing a more serious domestic carbon market agenda, and other countries are definitely keeping that option open / developing ‘voluntary’ systems. Another possibility would be an industry-specific (instead of geography-specific) sectoral approach that airlines could opt into to comply with EU law. I think the EU would see their approach as a success (if only a partial one) if it encouraged other countries to set up regulatory mechanisms, however weak in practice, and it would be willing to accept something far shoddier than the ETS as ‘equivalent.’ But that’s just my sense.

Again, I feel that the issues surrounding carbon markets here are a sideshow to a far more serious issue that CJ folks should be hammering home in increasingly sophisticated ways – I mean the overarching illegitimacy of the current negotiations.

Accounting for atmosphere is a contender for one of the top ten anthro blogs. The poll is being held by Anthropology Report and can be accessed here - http://anthropologyreport.com/survey-10-best-anthropology-blogs/


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?

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.”

Climate Justice Research Project

Carbon markets do not reduce emissions.

The EU ETS has systematically failed to induce investment in low-carbon technologies. This is true in both phases, and it has been true both during and before the euro crisis.

The EU ETS has been repeatedly subject to fraudulent practices, not simply by fringe or criminal elements but also by financial actors at the center of carbon trading. The European Commission recently accepted there would be inevitably some stolen allowances circulating in the markets, and made provisions to legally protect traders. The EC and national law enforcement have been unable to recover the vast majority of stolen credits or lost tax revenue.

Before the euro crisis, the glut of allowances in the ETS was projected to be over 1.1 billion tons of emissions at the beginning of phase 3 in 2013. The price of carbon is far below the cost of implementing new technologies for reduction. Financial actors are quickly abandoning carbon markets due to their dysfunction.

The ETS is highly susceptible to widespread lobbying, with the effect of completely unrealistic market pricing, windfall profits for industrials, political imbalances in who receives free allowances, and inability to include new sectors, such as airlines, into the market.

Carbon markets have especially failed to reduce CO2. Markets treat all GHGs as equivalent even when they are not, and subsequently avoid the real problem of reducing reliance on fossil energy. The ETS is simply an industrial subsidy for polluters, a fact which helps explain why the economic recovery has increased CO2 emissions to record levels.

Among other perverse incentives, the ETS has provided a major incentive distortion in favor of new dirty power plants, while the CDM has provided a major incentive to generate HFCs.

Environmental integrity is systematically undermined in the rule making surrounding carbon markets. The only partial exception is when NGO actors, using their own funds, research and initiative, are able to forcefully criticize specific market failings. There is no internal process to maintain or even verify the environmental integrity of carbon markets.

Carbon offsets are rights to pollute. The CDM is a market formally organized to transfer a new ‘natural’ resource asset from the developing world to Europe.

Carbon offsets create more problems for poor people, and make marginalized groups and developing countries bear the climate burden.

The CDM does not reduce emissions and is not designed to reduce emissions. At best, it produces a net zero balance of emissions, but with any error it actually increases emissions.

Widespread error in additionality requirements virtually guarantees that a very high proportion of CDM projects actually increase emissions, while concentrating wealth among a financial elite.

CDM investment is not ‘development,’ but cash payments to existing elite. Its idea of development is highly reductive, focused only on indices of FDI and GDP, with little awareness of the factors that encourage broad social development on an equitable basis. In some cases, CDM projects actively harm the lives of already marginalized groups.

Renewable energy standards have been far more important than carbon markets for investment in China and in Europe.

Forestry offsets are essentially law enforcement programs designed to kick marginalized groups and indigenous people off their land, often by enriching some local elite, promoting plantations and consolidating land grabs. They are incapable of curtailing commercial logging.

Private sector investment in ‘low-hanging fruit’ uses up the most valuable opportunities for developing countries to participate in carbon reduction activities. If and when developing countries have reduction commitments, they will be obligated to pay for far more expensive reductions.

The CDM Executive Board is unable to make necessary changes when environmental integrity of carbon offsets is against the interests of individual member states. Its inability to curtail HFC-based offsets is an excellent example.

The political organization of the CDM perpetuates the marginalization of smaller developing countries.

Instead of acknowledging the problems with carbon markets, the World Bank and related financial bodies have worked to create more carbon markets with lower standards and less transparency. The use of tools like Programme of Activities (PoA) and creditable NAMAs, and the proliferation of Pacific Rim domestic markets stand to make markets ungovernable.

Land use and forestry credits are systemically faulty and highly dangerous. Biospheric carbon cycles are not equivalent to geological carbon cycles, and the substitution of agricultural and forestry projects for fossil fuel extraction is a failure to confront the climate problem.

Science calls for a finite limit on CO2 emissions. The easiest way to achieve this is to limit fossil energy extraction.

A recent post of mine was picked up by redd-monitor.org and also by Ticker.org. In this post I follow up with a streamlined redux of the proposal for a planned phase out of fossil fuels through a volume cap on fossil energy extraction.

A global volume cap on fossil energy extraction will give a clear price signal to the market, without any need to commodify emissions. A cap on fossil energy extraction will efficiently distribute costs between fossil energy producers, distributors and end-users, all of whom benefit from cheap, dirty fuels. A volume cap on extraction will allow for a planned phase out of fossil fuels by providing a clear signal about available reserves and their value.

By correctly aligning the expected harm caused with the volume of supply, the price of fossil fuels at market should correctly reflect their danger to human lives and to the planet. A volume cap on extraction attaches the value of CO2 emissions directly to the price of energy by making fossil fuel energy sources artificially scarce, without a separate emissions-based mechanism.

In contrast, carbon markets and clean energy subsidies risk lowering demand for fossil fuels, paradoxically making them cheaper and weakening the effect of a carbon price, because they place the whole burden on energy consumers without decommissioning fossil energy assets. Carbon markets trust that competition will drive reductions in fossil fuel use, but they fail to recognize that fossil fuel producers are political actors.

Fossil fuel producers do not have the right to continue extraction unabated. There is no right to property that supersedes the right to climate security. Fossil fuels are only safe when they remain unmined in their natural state.

Fossil energy companies are unresponsive to any current regulatory signals. They do not believe that any existing policy proposals will reduce the use of fossil fuels in the foreseeable future.

Development of non-fossil energy solutions may simply increase energy use without curtailing fossil energy extraction.  In addition to giving incentives for development of renewable energy, explicit decisions must be made about how much and which reserves will be left untapped.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide from fossil fuels is not equivalent to carbon already in the biosphere, or other GHGs. Carbon markets enable continued mining of dirty fuels on the false assumption that biotic carbon is equally safe as unmined fossil carbon. It is not possible to adequately substitute protection of forests for continued fossil fuel extraction. Likewise, carbon capture and storage represents a highly risky and temporary solution that can only ever counter a small portion of fossil carbon emissions. These false solutions fail to answer questions of scale and risk.

A planned phase out of fossil fuels eliminates the role of the financial services industry as a de facto regulator of climate policy and the carbon price. In the United States, even while major NGOs and finance corporations eagerly lobbied for a cap-and-trade system, there has been significant apprehension about handing a $2 trillion market to an industry which traffics in other people’s risk. There are very serious political implications to anointing this class of people to be the arbiters of an economic transformation.

The proposal will allow for wise choices to be made about which reserves will be exploited. Dangerous extraction techniques such as mountaintop removal coal mining, hydro fracking for natural gas, tar sands and deepwater oil drilling will be irrelevant with a volume cap. By putting a cap on fossil extraction, energy companies could put their R&D dollars into non-fossil energy technology.

Since taxes and markets are meant to generate revenues for public investment in climate mitigation and adaptation, the proposal raises a significant hurdle. The best approach might be a windfall tax for fossil fuel producers, levied internationally and used to support calls for climate debt as an alternative financing mechanism. The fund could also be used to support energy costs for economically marginalized consumers. Regardless, this is an important issue to be studied.

We cannot avoid the political implications of climate change by fudging the numbers or assuming that an abstract carbon market will confuse the real cost of dealing with climate change for rich-world consumers. The developing world and millions living in environmentally distressed areas are inevitably facing a future of constrained options and diminished hopes. There is no reason the fossil fuel industry should be exempt from this constrained future at their expense.

It is clear that the UN climate negotiations are now in tatters. The most ominous move, this time by the European Community, is to create a formal mechanism to separate the UN’s carbon market from the Kyoto Protocol, which is currently its legal basis.

It was already on the table last December, but this swift death to Kyoto, which contains the only currently operational principle of historical responsibility, is quickly being realized.

On the other hand, for climate justice activists the miserable condition of the UN negotiations can lead for a much stronger statement of the necessity of directly confronting the causes of climate change.

Working with the Climate Justice Research project, I have created a proposal  to directly cap fossil fuel extraction. ‘Keeping the coal in hole’ is a long-standing demand of climate activists. This proposal suggests we can use a ban on fossil energy extraction as a price driver with a direct effect on the climate and on the economy.

Climate Justice Policy Brief – Fossil Fuel Phase Out

We know that climate policy will be effective only if the vast majority of fossil fuels stay untouched, safely and geologically intact. The science is very clear. Here is a proposal to make it happen.

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.”


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