Amelia Moore asked me today about why I’m using atmosphere as a figure for the project. Specifically:

i am healthily skeptical of your use of “atmosphere,” though i do think carbon assets, units made by others, are so fascinating.  how is “atmosphere” different or not from “climate” as an object?  What figure/form is being produced in these operations you critique?  Who speaks of atmosphere in these realms?  i like it as a title “accounting for atmosphere” because i like how it sounds, but what are the “real”/”native” terms being made out there?  in my work “climate change” is the messy buzzword for the travel market and its consultancies, and “atmosphere” is not at all used.  do carbon traders deal in atmosphere?  am i making sense at all?  its not that important, but i am curious.

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…