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Paul Saint-Amour, an English professor at University of Pennsylvania, has written a provocative reflection on the resonances of war trauma, states of privilege, and ethical implications for global climate change. It’s a follow up to another recent piece from a specifically American vantage point, Roy Scranton’s Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene. Talk of the ethics of climate change from the perspective of the privileged global north has become a bit of a cottage industry in recent years, since when viewed in a certain light the very problem of climate change seems to provoke a ‘perfect storm’ for modern ethical philosophy (what with the problem of altruism and sacrifice/discounting for anonymous future generations). Malcolm Bull’s review of Stephen Gardiner’s book by that name, A Perfect Moral Storm, is a case in point. Still, I think this kind of sustained debate among those in a position to do something about global carbon emissions is extremely important. In my view, there is no possibility of resilience or adaptation that does not include a radical reduction in emissions, and to present these as alternatives to each other, as is sometimes done by pundits or economists like Euston Quah, is to offer a false choice that goes beyond optimism. Privileged populations like those of the United States or Singapore have a global responsibility to take climate change disasters seriously – not as a matter of altruism or charity towards disadvantaged neighbors, but as an integral component of their own affluence.
Saint-Amour takes a different tack from Bull and Gardiner by shifting focus to the complexities of trauma that accompany the devastating unravelling of social fabric under conditions of disaster. I’ve often thought that war and environmental disaster have interesting and important parallels: both are the outcome of much longer processes that produce situations that cannot be controlled; both (at least in contemporary times) are quintessentially environmental; both produce suffering not simply because they harm bodies or exacerbate inequalities, but especially because societies are fragile things intimately tied to space and ecology – and both war and environmental disasters make that fragility impossible to maintain. If trauma can be a consequence of war and disaster, it is because of this intimacy. Saint-Amour brings this connection home through the contemporary figure of the drone attack, which produces an environment of terror through the experience of constantly hearing drones overhead and knowing, fearing, that at any unknown moment terror from the air may strike someone dead – but whom, and on what impenetrable calculation? Moreover, his attention is drawn by the specific asymmetry of the global relation, in which American empire secures its state of privilege against the radical inequalities it orchestrates and preserves through perfectly asymmetrical warfare. While in the end I’m not sure the drone is an adequate figure for the ethics of climate change, it does a better job than the calculative rationalism proposed by Malcolm Bull.
At least some middle income developing countries are cautiously voicing support for ‘Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions’ as an alternative to the CDM carbon market. NAMAs are an as-yet poorly defined instrument for planning for developing country mitigation commitments. Within the global negotiations, the US position has been that developing countries must be incorporated into global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and lead negotiator Todd Stern has repeatedly dismissed what he calls developing country ‘resentment.’
An abbreviated version of this argument appeared in the newsletter AlterEco on Dec 10, 2010.
Second-in-command negotiator Jonathan Pershing puts it more generously: developing and developed country commitments within any acceptable global agreement must have the same “character.” NAMAs help achieve this by developing a national strategy for emissions reductions that can begin to quantify developing country commitments. These ‘nationally appropriate’ activities take the form of a list of possible projects combined with basic research on the volume of reductions and the costs of implementing changes. This begins to form some of the groundwork for figuring out who will pay for those projects. It might take the form of a realistic commitment to a certain percentage reduction within a global architecture, on condition that wealthy countries will largely pay for the necessary investment.
Interestingly, the idea exposes some of the fault lines between developing country governments and existing carbon offsets markets. Under the Clean Development Mechanism private actors invest in emissions reductions projects in developing countries, quantify those reductions and then sell the credit for them to polluters in Europe. It is a market for a novel resource asset that is solely meant to transfer ecosystem benefits to the global North. One proponent claimed to me yesterday that at least developing countries are getting paid for it. But in fact very little of the dollar value for offsets stays in developing countries. The project developers are often foreign, plus they sell the offsets usually to European financial service providers at a steep discount, perhaps at only 40-50% of cash value. More than that, the projects pay for capital investment in developing countries, which is a good thing, but it is not necessarily economically productive capital. The ability to pollute a bit more in Europe has direct economic benefits – cheaper energy, more cement or aluminium production – but waste gas flaring in Thailand does not. The benefits are primarily environmental, not economic, and those environmental benefits are primarily global and may indeed have local environmental costs.
NAMAs tend to emphasize that developing country governments have very little control over ad hoc CDM investment within their borders, and governments may view NAMAs as a way to direct mitigation activities at the level of national economic planning and to seek out more systematic forms of finance. Indeed CDM carbon offset developers tend to view NAMAs as a direct threat to their business strategy because it opens their projects up to alternative forms of finance and because NAMAs are meant to anticipate reductions commitments. While these two issues are still poorly defined, what CDM developers really dislike is the idea of having to work closely with national planning agencies: they want the least-effort means to get in, earn their money, and leave. But the other side of this is that NAMA projects would be organized most likely through the very planning bodies that put together national development plans including the World Bank’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs). It presents a choice between fast capital globalization-style investment and the sort of ‘soft’ neoliberalism the World Bank has increasingly defined over the past 20 years.
A Malaysian delegate expressed the crux of this frustration to me: when donor countries start to insist on precise accounting of quantified reductions in direct quid pro quo for mitigation finance, it turns NAMAs once again into stark payments for carbon reduction services. That, for him, is where sovereignty is challenged. It is not a mater of infringement on sovereignty as when a foreign body takes on some of the role of the national government, but a matter of the formal subordination of one sovereign government to the prerogatives of another.
Martin Kohr, director of the South Centre, put it starkly when he pointed out that even if middle income countries agree to strict accounting demands, they will of course take the money being offered – but ‘when cooperation is needed in the negotiations they will hate you.’ (Paraphrase.) Perhaps that does look a bit like resentment, as the US negotiators like to say, but hopefully we can better see some of the architecture of that resentment here.
Perhaps a month ago Paul Athanasiou of EcoEquity, a radical climate group, made the very smart point to me that geoengineering is a viable possibility only if coupled with intensive, actual reductions in global carbon emissions as a sort of emergency intervention. Otherwise climate engineering proposals remain extremely dangerous because emissions continue unabated while temperatures are kept artificially low. If the geoengineering intervention is curtailed, temperatures would skyrocket precipitously like a dam bursting.
But the issue of climate engineering seems to be coming to a head. John Tierney wrote today, here in the NY Times, about an upsurge in interest in geoengineering or climate engineering proposals. These include things like installing sunscreens in space to block radiation over the Arctic, making the oceans or clouds more reflective using aerosols or reflective particles, directly removing CO2 from the atmosphere, or even launching a small artificial planet into space that would orbit at a constant rate between the Earth and Sun, blocking a percentage of radiation. Tierney mentions some important risks, for instance the potential effects of aerosols on rainfall.
One thing that’s fascinating is the tendency toward grandiose thinking among scientists whose inclinations run toward large-scale experimentation with global systems. An issue that comes up again and again is who – or what political body – could reasonably authorize such an intervention into what is patently (but not legally) a human domain of the highest political order, the climatic stability of Earth’s biosphere. Does this require UN authorization? Could the UN prevent some ambitious entrepreneur from trying to intervene to save the world?
But this is the attractiveness of geoengineering proposals for most proponents, namely that they don’t require much talking, negotiation or coordination. “[H]ow much hope is there of permanently enforcing tough restrictions in the United States, much less in poor countries like India and China?” Tierney asks. “If even a few nations demur or cheat, the whole system can break down.” This is conversely apparent in how proponents talk about the physical side of things. He quotes Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution of Science discussing the need for and difficulty with short term climate experiments: “With short testing periods, you would need to hit the [climate] system with a hammer.”
Can you guys be a little more delicate with my atmosphere please?
Tierney writes that “climate engineering does not require unanimous agreement or steadfast enforcement throughout the world. Instead of relying on politicians’ promises, we might find it simpler to deal directly with Mother Earth’s hot air.” This puts us squarely in the domain of the science studies insight that things have politics – why talk to Indians or the Chinese when you can negotiate directly with Mother Earth? The issue is not what Andrew Barry calls ‘antipolitics’ but rather the politics per se of technology. Geoengineering is held up as an alternative to multilateral negotiations or even to world government, if you like.
Pay attention, too, to the language of promise, hope, agreement and cheeting that runs through the geoengineering discourse. Mike Fortun helps us think about such things in discussing the ethics of promising in biotech, in which technological promises help secure investment futures. Here the operation is opposite and symmetrical: cheating is a threat because ultimately promises are insubstantial. Tierney marks himself as a ‘realist’ sharing symmetrical epistemological underpinnings with the ‘idealists’ he imagines will just talk about the weather instead of acting.
By setting up the debate as one between the ease of a realist proposal and the implausibility of the idealists’ approach, Tierney outright ignores the real, fine-grained intimate work that many, many people will need to engage in to make climate mitigation happen. That work will indeed require a lot of talking, and talking with people with expectations that will be hard to meet or manage.
Most importantly, Tierney completely neglects by far the biggest risk of geoengineering: cooling the atmosphere without reducing CO2 concentrations requires a permanent commitment to continue deployment of the technology indefinitely into the future. He alludes to but elides this fact when he writes that the “effects [of loading the statosphere with aerosols] would wane as the particles fell back to Earth.” In the meantime people and governments will have forgotten about the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere. They will have forgotten the need to actually reduce emissions because so long as geoengineerging is in force the climate will remain cool even while CO2 concentrations skyrocket.
What happens when no one wants to keep paying the $10-30 billion (annual?) Teirney estimates is the cost of such a proposal? Temperatures meanwhile will have been kept artificially low – to cease the engineering intervention global temperatures would spike catastrophically. The one exception Tierney mentions is the possibility of active, direct removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which pretty much everyone agrees would be a good thing.
Geoengineering may not require global agreement to implement, but if one considers who could make such a promise the only plausible answer is a global political institution with a mandate and wherewithal to vitally protect the well being of humanity indefinitely into the future.