Planning, Management, Design: Whence climate interventions? – Reading copy AAAs 2012

Climate change is a sui generis political challenge. The atmospheric and geochemical processes at stake continue to outpace our still-emerging understanding of Earth as planet and home. While actual weather events outstrip our capacity to understand them, the informational basis for experiencing climate change has led to a situation in which a single variable, atmospheric concentration of GHGs, measured in parts per million, gets prioritized as the focus of global attention. Paul Edwards (2010) describes the extensive global knowledge infrastructure of climate science as a prerequisite to ‘thinking globally,’ the coming-into-being of a planetary ecological experience slowly emergent over the twentieth century but rapidly intensifying. It means that the experience of climate change is always an experience of information within an elaborate infrastructural ecology. As Edwards describes, climate science has articulated an extremely powerful, integrated global knowledge infrastructure. But in political and economic domains, the analogous market infrastructure has increasingly fragmented regulatory space across what Jane Guyer calls platform economies, which aren’t markets per se but informational platforms through which practices of innovation, fraud, political influence, investment, gaming, entrepreneurship and other kind of climate-related market activity proliferate.

Several categories of practical reason can be delineated here, namely planning, design and management. I work with these in turn to lay emphasis on a fourth category, remediation. The anthropological significance of an international climate regime is that it represents an emergent attempt to manage the chemical composition of the atmosphere. To that extent, let me express a sense of amazement at the scope of ambition in the project to establish a singular global climate regime, which so far has remained elusive. Another way of looking at this is that carbon information—carbon accounting and carbon markets—seeks to remediate humans’ material involvement in the geological carbon cycle. Paul Rabinow (2007) uses the term remediation to describe processes subjected to new media strategies within programs of improvement. Quantification of atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions forms the centerpiece of all major regulatory strategies for minimizing climate change. Turning ‘carbon’ into detailed information about human activities, which can then be financialized in various ways, seeks to remediate humans’ role in the geological carbon cycle.

In this talk I want to focus on the priority given to atmospheric greenhouse gases as the sin qua non of economic planning for minimizing global warming. I describe how the anticipatory or speculative inheritance of climate knowledge overshadows and, in practice, has reproduced practices of speculation within highly mediated market contexts. Carbon as information emerges in carbon accounting and trading practices, both of which form the primary basis for economic planning for minimizing global warming.  

Managing atmospheric chemistry

One result of the emphasis on a single variable is that carbon has become an intriguing and wide-spread metric of the human capable, in different ways, of bearing on human–atmosphere relations. This has invited widespread creative activity that critically reflects on the potentiality and mutability of carbon in diverse forms. In part the question is simply, what experimental projects can be done with carbon? What forms does carbon take and what informational platforms can it circulate on globally?

In Thailand, since 2007 or so many industrial agricultural firms have invested in emissions reduction projects in the hope of selling their reductions to European buyers through a United Nations process called the Clean Development Mechanism. I’ve been interviewing these agro-businesses and the companies that help them set up the carbon projects. These projects produce methane from wastewater from their processing plants, then carefully measure the methane and burn it for energy. The unprocessed wastewater is jet black, with a sharp, highly organic smell. Water pollution is measured in terms of chemical oxygen demand (COD), which indicates the load of organic compounds. It is processed in large, tarp-covered digester ponds through an anaerobic process. The main gases that come out of the digester are CH4, HS4, H2O and CO2. HS4 is highly corrosive and presents a major business challenge because it destroys instrumentation.

The measuring requirements, mandated by the UN, are highly complex and most companies fail to ever earn any credits to sell, although they often continue to capture methane and burn it in the factories. The crucial component is this informational process of converting chemistry to information, and those companies which are successful have had to come up with innovative business models. There is a monetary component here, driven by an entrepreneurial relation to risk, but the crucial management dimension is conversion of chemistry to information.

I mean management here as a category of practical activity that bears on complex relational materialities. The Thai agricultural carbon producers have to figure out how to manage a chemical-informational exchange between corrosive waste gases, international carbon finance and United Nations regulatory proceduralism. As part of a much longer argument I have developed elsewhere, management comes to bear on problems that can’t be solved in any straightforward way. What gets managed? Large companies and employees, to be sure, but also floods and forests, ‘environments,’ pain, mental illness, traffic, sewage, risk, information, intractable illnesses like diabetes, public relations, disasters, crises, activists and shareholders alike. These are objects of management. Each points toward on-going material-semiotic negotiations with not-natural, not-cultural entities like, in this case, our new atmosphere. Problems for management are delegated to managers, investors and entrepreneurs. Management is a labor relation internal to capitalist enterprise but always heterogeneous to it, for it deals with knotty materialities that may never be abstracted enough to cleanly enter relations of exchange. Viewed differently, management represents a zone where government, commercial and technical practices are maximally indistinct. Here, carbon quantification constitutes the atmosphere as an object of management via chemical-informational interfaces. 

Market Design

Market-oriented policy relies on speculative competition to drive a carbon price. Since 2010, carbon prices have collapsed, and continue to be very uncertain.Europe’s market was set up in 2005. Donald MacKenzie (2008) has described how the design of Europe’s emissions cap had a fundamental flaw, namely that it allowed governments to promise lobbyists free permits, even if those promises added up to more than should be allowed in the total system. A related problem is that most of the permits through 2012 have been distributed free (beginning in 2013 they will increasingly be auctioned). So while industries enjoyed windfall profits—essentially a multi-billion dollar subsidy for agreeing to accept climate legislation—the overall cap on emissions has turned out to be far too weak. Estimates now suggest as many as 1.5 billion excess permits are in the system, exacerbated by UN offset credits like those produced in Thailand.

For those who follow carbon markets in detail, the degree of committed complexity to consider is remarkable, especially considering the level of fraud the markets have experienced. For example, across Europe, a major hacking theft occurred where stolen permits—which exist only as electronic numbers on government registries—were sold back into the carbon markets, such that buyers did not know if they held stolen permits or not. In 2011 the spot markets shut down for more than three weeks. The fix put in place by the EU was efficient but not reassuring. They simply created a rule stating that it didn’t matter if an account held stolen property.*

The proliferation of separate carbon markets in China, Thailand, Australia, California, South Korea and elsewhere helps demonstrate the technical complexities of these platform economies, each of which defines a virtual space complexly articulated with others. The market fiction here is that a ton of carbon is always equivalent to a ton of carbon, no matter where on earth it is emitted—but this view says nothing about the entrepreneurial practices at stake. If planning is going to rely on the enterprise of commercial actors to create new technologies driven by a price on carbon, they will have to take into consideration these other kinds of enterprising activities such as lobbying, fraud and theft, which actively reconceive the material dimensions of information across diverse platforms.

Guyer has suggested that diverse platforms of creating and exchanging value offer a kind of segmented landscape as an alternative to so called market economics. The knowledge here is knowledge of these socio-technical devices. I view platforms literally as the informational and normative-legal bases for establishing exchange, and make the point that diverse platforms proliferate radically, while movement between platforms is the high-risk, high-reward activity par excellence. Donald MacKenzie argues—and I agree to a point—that there is tremendous capacity for technical criticism by critical scholars, but I don’t think design criticism alone can account for the ways governmental prerogative is continually held hostage to the demands of lobbyists and industry.

Planning for Climate Change

The lesson is that it’s politically relatively easy to set up the informational platforms for carbon regulation, but setting the cap on emissions—the limit to pollution—is extremely difficult. Planning for climate change means distributing obligations to reduce emissions while minimizing the economic costs and uncertainties of doing so. The assumption is that policy clarity and fairness gives industry the opportunity to make good investments in the long run, and that energy infrastructures take a long time to re-tool. But the term ‘planning’ may be something of a misnomer in such explicitly market-oriented contexts. I take planning as the application of norms to detailed decisions about how people live, within a commitment to systematic knowledge about the social. Yet by regulating quantified emissions in the abstract, quantification defers all the major detailed decisions about how companies and people respond to carbon constraint. Carbon information promises to let people or companies make their own decisions about how—and how much—to reduce emissions based on a price signal. It promises normalization via measurement and trade, without any commitment to specific norms or detailed social knowledge.

Carbon markets have been seriously chaotic for the past three years due to the design failures just mentioned, but part of the problem is that Europe has achieved its goals too easily due to the economic recession. The cap on emissions was set in 2004 or 2005 based on modeling of the economy that simply proved wrong with the financial collapse. For industries regulated by the carbon market, a low price is great—it means lower costs and less obligation to do anything. What interests me from a planning perspective, however, is that debates about the price of carbon in Europe have hinged on what the purpose of the market is supposed to be.

Well, the point of the market is to lower carbon emissions, right? Yes, but what does that mean? Many people in the EC felt that the objective of the carbon market was to transform Europe’s technological base for power generation, and that the carbon cap was an imperfect tool for doing so. Many companies agreed, too, since the carbon price was an effective subsidy for all sorts of new technologies. Others said the EC has confused its policy directives, and had undermined the carbon price by subsidizing wind and solar power through a different renewable energy policy.

In other words, is the issue just a linear numerical reduction in CO2 emissions? These actors suggest a more thorough critique in the form of a project to transform the energy basis of society. It suggests the contemporary atmosphere is an artifact of a historical form of industrial economy in which the practice of burning fossil fuels makes people geological actors.

In the meantime, the coherence of carbon markets as a planning strategy, once held in place by the legally binding orientation of United Nations negotiations, has been thoroughly undermined. Since its inception, the UN approach to climate change was eventually to set a legally binding numerical cap on total emissions among those countries which have obligations. As one Sierra Club campaigner told me, global climate policy “depends on a concrete definition of the universe within which emissions occur, and carbon trades cannot involve reductions outside of that universe.” That principle was the organizing logic of a planned UN climate administration. What’s happened since 2009, however, is that multiple universes have proliferated. At the UN conference in Copenhagen in 2009, all of this was called into question, and it can no longer be assumed that negotiations will result in a single, legally binding agreement with an overarching numerical commitment to lower emissions. Instead, we face a far less unified, heterogeneous international policy space and we won’t know if a reasonable plan will emerge, in my view, until 2017 at the earliest. To answer the question posed by this panel, in fact nobody has a plan.

Concerning planning, what’s most interesting to me as an anthropologist is its problematization (Rabinow 2003, following Foucault 1988). A problematization, [writes Foucault] … does not mean the representation of a pre-existing object nor the creation through discourse of an object that did not exist. It is the ensemble of discursive and nondiscursive practices that make something enter into the play of true/false and constitute it as an object of thought.

Two problematizations emerge here I want to affirm. First, is climate change simply a problem of the numerical concentration of greenhouse gases, or is it a problem of a historical form of industrial economy in which social organization is predicated on planetary-scale geological practices? Second, given this planetary scale of human intervention and its intimate connection to how people live in the contemporary, what is the form of international governance suitable to climate intervention? These problematizations, I believe, define the actuality of climate planning today.


Governmental processes are highly reliant on market actors, due to several decades through which governments have deferred many if not most major decisions to commercial interests. Frankly, governments don’t know what to do about most of their problems, and they have less and less capacity to act even when they can figure out what to do. At the same time, the attitude through which commercial and nongovernmental actors approach climate change can often be very surprising, and I find it best to view climate change as an anticipatory, highly imaginative space of practical elaboration of different potential futures. These imaginative processes bear on polluting behavior and on innovative human-atmosphere relationships to create new platforms of exchange that may or may not articulate with each other. Carbon information makes this possible, especially through the emergence of atmosphere as an abstract space of quantified global and future relation.

By tracing management, design and planning as categories of practical reason appropriate to climate interventions, I’ve traced a story about the actuality of climate planning with respect to two problematizations: will carbon markets and other platform economies serve to transform the fossil energy basis of late industrial economies? And, given the planetary, atmospheric and geological dimensions of climate change, what is the form of international governance suitable for climate intervention?

To this end, let me conclude with thoughts about a fourth category of practical reason, remediation. Carbon accounting practices objectify the atmosphere and, in so doing, posit the atmosphere as a new medium for global relations. Atmosphere is a literal medium, in the sense that it envelops the earth and increasingly forms the possibility for new anthropological futures. Atmosphere is also a medium in the sense that its physical characteristics form the basis for work, that is, a way to slow the transition rather than simply arriving at climate change ‘immediately,’ as it were. Work implies a pragmatics of imagining different futures, combining practices of logical extrapolation, speculation, and materialization. Carbon accounting remediates human involvement in geological carbon cycles.