This post is a time-capsule: at some point in the future I will open it to re-think who I need to be in order to research atmosphere and accounting.

I am currently reading the work of Larry Lohmann, an activist and writer with the Corner House, an important UK climate justice group. I’m reading it to entrench myself in the climate justice perspective, really to take it on as my own for the sake of the climate justice research project. It’s not unfamiliar. But it offers a particular narrative and a very specific causal mechanism – which after all is very convincing – for why the accountants and the quants are doing the wrong thing when it comes to climate change mitigation.

“The situation is bad,” Lohmann writes, “but imagining we can quantify how bad it is interferes with clarity of thought and with good decision-making.”

The crux of the issue is that the climate justice activists –  let me call them ‘anti-quants’ – insist on a couple of foundational truths that the quants misrecognize. I’m going to detail them here, as a way both to inscribe them into my work over the next couple of years and to have a way to unlearn them when the time comes.

  1. Climate change is caused by taking fossil fuels out of the ground. Once in the biosphere, they circulate for very long periods of time. Therefore, the primary objective of dealing with climate change should be to keep coal and oil in the ground, and the regulatory program should focus on this above all else. (I love the reason in this logic!)
  2. Fossil fuels have been and are associated with some very egregious abuses – often referred to as petroviolence. Oil is paradigmatic of the resource curse. So there are other very good reasons to rethink the carbon economy.
  3. The discovery of climate change is a discovery of a new form of political inequality. The atmosphere is a sink for greenhouse gases, and the sink is basically full.  But the sink has been filled by the cumulative practices of a very small number of people. Whatever remaining space in the sink has become extremely valuable, and the debates about how to allocate emissions permits are debates about how to assign and distribute value to that space.
  4. To the extent that carbon markets are technical means to achieve this distribution, we can understand the ease with which carbon trading enables fossil fuel technologies to continue and even expand. The logic of offsets is that fossil fuel carbon is equivalent to, say, biospheric carbon stored in forests, or to increased efficiencies. Encouraging efficiencies and good forestry is great, but once the oil and coal is out of the ground it’s too late because drilling and mining are essentially irreversible geological practices.

So while much of the debate around climate change is pretty complicated, we can see the basic logic to not burning more fossil fuels – what Lohmann referred to above ‘clarity of thought’. (I’m reminded here of Alain Badiou’s approach in his Metapolitics, which he appropriately begins with an homage to Georges Canguilhem.)

In the spirit of this kind of analysis, I wrote the following to Peter Applebome in response to his NY Times article on protests over a new coal plant in Linden, NJ. The issue is that the plant has been justified because it proposes to incorporate experimental technology to return some carbon dioxide to below the Earth’s surface – in short because ‘carbon capture and storage’ proposes a sophisticated geological practice (humans as forces of geological process).

Perhaps it’s worth pointing out that the issue for many environmentalists is not CCS per se. Fossil fuels, and coal in particular, represent a huge store of carbon underground that, once released, will circulate in the biosphere for a very long time. Carbon capture and storage represents a partial and probably feeble attempt to reverse otherwise irreversible geological processes. CCS technologies would be welcome if coupled with severe regulation of fossil fuels and an acknowledgement of historical responsibility for environmental damage. But tough legislation of burning fossil fuels seems like a long shot at best. CCS then takes a role as a flimsy excuse to keep up our bad habits and another example of the hubris of the technicians. Meanwhile, we know for a fact that building coal plants is a core cause of climate change, so it’s best that the plants don’t get built.

Actually, this takes me back to my earlier posts on marginal practices. If what we have here is a clear logic for keeping fossil fuels in the ground, then we can understand quantifying practices as avoiding this clarity of logic in favor of attempting to cut as close as possible to the limit of expansion of GHGs. Calculating climate impacts becomes an exercise in trying to figure out exactly how much more carbon dioxide can be released on the margin of climate threats to the Earth’s ecosystems.