You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Numbers’ category.

The Numerology of Climate Change

An abstract for a paper I’m writing – [update – here’s the link to the short article in Anthropology News]

One does not need to go far in the public discourse surrounding climate change to be inundated with the mystique of number. In the United States, where viewers of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth were treated to specific stunts of quantificatory pontification, just as in Singapore, where I teach climate change to nonspecialist undergraduates, the numberwork of graphs and charts has its own techie vitality. Check out the graphical puppetry in this University of Minnesota project in which a cellist tracks global temperature changes no matter how out of key the song is. The human is the dependent variable of an unknown function, whose independent variable is temperature driven by anthropogenic CO2. Anthropogenic goes two ways: anthropogenic CO2 has re-made the climate, and now the climate promises to dictate. Where is this tune going?

Drawing on my on-going research on the imaginative dimensions of carbon accounting, in this commentary I look toward key moments in the emergence of climate change science to identify why the numbers mystique holds such powerful sway over the possibilities for thinking climate change. Part of the story must include the promises of ‘big data’ and sheer computational prowess of the late-20th century. But what fascinates me are very early moments in climate science that seem to have secured the terms through which contemporary political thought takes place.

Joseph Fourier, working in the first decade of the 19th century, secured the mathematical speculation at the heart of climate modeling and associated debates about uncertainty. Svante Arrhenius, often credited with articulating the first complete theory of climate change, published in 1896, decisively established the quantification of carbon dioxide as the key independent variable, and articulated this in the same form through which carbon quantification is dealt with today. Lastly, Dave Keeling’s monumental efforts to rigorously measure global CO2 levels have established the unity of climate change as a scientific and political issue based on its theoretical human etiology.

When one imagines scary apocalyptic futures fraught with uncertainty but which hinge on that single variable, through these three elements—speculation, quantification and anthropogenesis—that imagination is possible.

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.

Lawrence Cohen writing at has up a new post on the personal identity database system through which promises of a revised or reformed Indian modernity are being made. His main assertion: “India is now a database.

The link between database and identity, and database and carbon (the express valuation of carbon as identity) in the case of carbon registries deserves reflection. I re-post here comments I made there.

The Uidai database(s) parallels many aspects of carbon registries which are proliferating all over the place – these semi-autonomous data/reporting platforms through which companies report emissions and track their efforts to reduce quantified emissions. They’re also the basis of regulatory carbon markets. In interviews in Beijing I was struck that, in addition to several governmental efforts, several companies and NGOs were setting up carbon registries of various sorts and attempting to enrol polluters into voluntary submission of carbon emissions information.

One observation is that the information platform dominates, in terms of how the project is conceived and how people or companies might relate to it. This happens whether carbon is assigned monetary value or not (information itself seems to have value–or people setting up registries work hard to give it value, often while dreaming of perhaps being able to turn their registry into a carbon market in the future).

De-duplication is not the problem of these platform economies (Jane Guyer’s term), so perhaps the iteration I pose here repeats the Hegalian tension Lawrence marks between India and China at the outset. (Having no real area expertise in either, it’s difficult for me to say.) But if not de-duplication, then what?

As when Lawrence mentions Stephen Collier and James Ferguson’s respective reflection on potential forms of the neoliberal social, I recall a chapter from Marilyn Strathern’s After Nature, ‘The Greenhouse Effect.’ There she theorizes the plasticity of class formations through a strong participatory dimension on the one hand (her example is the proliferation of families who sell access to domestic space through the bed and breakfast) and the conversion of ‘relation’ conceived generically as ‘resource’ – so, for example, the idea that one’s family connections can be treated as a resource in the quest for upward mobility. The plasti-class is that which actively and intentionally participates in the game of maximizing resourcefulness; it is not bourgeois necessarily, just ambitious.

I note here that the key problem of these autonomous quasi-regulatory carbon platforms is enrolling companies into their voluntary reporting frameworks which, when achieved, seems amount to an active commitment in maximizing carbon resourcefulness. Attention thus turns to those who would be enrolled and, when enrolled, what they seem to be getting involved in. Needless to say, not that many companies are excited about these registries. But what Lawrence writes suggests a series of questions about commitment, his term, to these platforms of value which are thoroughly capitalist but not necessarily monetary. Are there echoes here for the Uidai de-duplication project? (Thinking of an earlier conversation – operability was a term of commitment; and I noticed that Lawrence flagged intractability at the outset as well. How does that fit in?)

Does ‘not necessarily monetary’ define a specific object? It would be wrong to say these are nonmonetary. Rather, the relation is different. It matters if the registries are monetary due to local design considerations, but there are many contexts in which it’s not necessary.

Actually I hesitated before writing ‘thoroughly capitalist’ just now, because the obvious point is that Chinese capitalism is precisely what is being problematized through these informational platforms. Recuperating that problematization would, I think, transform what I’ve just written. Carbon regulation is conceived here not as a necessary curative for climate change, but as an instrument for restructuring the economy through capital investment in less energy-intensive industries. Reciprocally, the discourse around China’s ‘low carbon life’ points to active reflection on work & consumption, in effect constantly raising the question of how to maintain happiness with respect to one’s work, how to consume in a reflective manner. To that extent, economic restructuring and the low carbon life both pose a degree of distance from growth per se and ask, in effect, how to grow appropriately. So then once again carbon reflects on not-necessarily-monetary value, or at least the possibility of holding that open as an option.

One point to push further is the association of carbon and identity. A significant complaint raised by companies is that carbon information is very sensitive – competitors might use it to understand a polluter’s production process, for example. Part of the way information is presumed to work especially in the context of data mining is that pattern itself reveals identity; for example I’ve written elsewhere about climate change fingerprints in the context of assessing whether ecological transformations bear causal relation to global warming. Likewise, the fetishization of information I describe in Accounting for Atmosphere toward the end of the paper suggests how ownership of information about carbon can be established as a highly aggressive act (the hackers’ term is ‘owning’). One last reference point: a major problem – even the major problem of the complex carbon accounting methodologies applied through these registries is the problem of carbon’s identity, that is, whose liability/opportunity inheres in the quantified relation.

All of this deserves more thought, but one initial observation is that the problem in the attribution of carbon is carbon’s identity, not that of the polluting entity, for a novel resource asset (‘carbon’) whose primary attribute is its planetary fungibility through which a ton of carbon everywhere is always presumed equal to a ton of carbon. In Accounting for Atmosphere I argue that carbon is a metric of the human, but here the relation is reversed – ‘is this carbon anthropogenic?’ And likewise the problem of duplication emerges again and again, to wit, does carbon information constitute a ‘second life‘ (Boellstorff) for carbon, the virtual repetition of a geological relation?

Here’s my recent paper The Prey of Uncertainty: Climate Change as Opportunity.

In this article I describe the post-Copenhagen moment in carbon markets and climate politics as one characterised by deep uncertainty. Uncertainty describes the social experience of emerging climate policy, but it is also business strategy. Uncertainty is necessary for markets to function. To understand this, I look toward practices of capitalism, which produce the future as indeterminate. Uncertainty is generated by business practices of treating conventions – rules and institutions, but also social conventions such as people’s ‘green’ expectations – in terms of their material opportunities. Treating conventions as always open to negotiation requires an ambitious or speculative ethos. Rather than projecting a stable vision of reality, nature or truth, these practitioners constantly ask, what can we do with these possibilities? I project that the near future will involve a proliferation of low-value, nontransparent carbon markets without any binding global cap on emissions.

The objective here is not only to capture the sense surrounding a rapid (and radical) market expansion over the period of 2008-2010, but to do so through practices we can associate with the new politics of possibility. As I argue in the paper, the issue here is creative work involved in manipulating diverse material connections. It is a kind of speculative realism, but one in which the speculation is that of actors whose work can be described ethnographically (see, for a different take, the post Apocalypse? Or Forward Curve?).

In fact, there is a metaphysical point to be made, in the sense that uncertainty entails a situation in which it is impossible to gain a stable vantage point or satisfactory perspective from which to assess climate futures. In this sense metaphysics is required by market actors themselves. They grasp toward a perspective on the real which is simply not available without metaphysical speculation. But, if so, their metaphysics so far is unrecognizable to philosophy.

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.”

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.

We’re all grateful to Andrew Revkin for keeping us up to date on the controversy surrounding hacked email messagesfrom the UK. Calls for a more inclusive science, or at any rate an approach to science that doesn’t assume the authority of its expertise, do in fact seem a long time in coming. The circles I sometimes run in – I’m thinking of people who work in development in Southeast Asia, mostly expats with a technical bent and a generally progressive but practical outlook – are deeply skeptical of the demand from the heights of the ivory tower to jump (how high?) on the climate bandwagon, especially when their imperious demands are coupled with the naive, bureaucratic idealism of United Nations proceduralism. When all of a sudden climate change adaptation and mitigation monies become the major driver of aid investment, red flags will fly.

But the disappointing aspect of the hacked email messages goes to a problem advocates for climate justice have been pointing out for a long time. All of a sudden climate science is obliged to pay much more attention to a rear-guard move to protect the legitimacy of their work, but what we’re left with is a silly, irresponsible debate between elite Northern science and the elite Northern conservative populists who don’t want the UN eroding their right to play frontiersmen on the grand stage of American exceptionalism. Meanwhile, ecosystems around the world are changing dramatically – but has anyone bothered to make localized, intimate environmental knowledges the object of public debate? The question here is trust and the mythos of provability. For some odd reason scientists and the people who fund them still think proof is only a relation between complexity of the data and the theories that may or may not account for them. Robust knowledge, on the other hand, would have a long time ago began to correlate science with localized ecological changes and the vast social and social justice implications of those changes.

Kim Fortun has brilliantly called attention to skepticism of computer modeling in the field of toxicology by pointing out that models imply one must either be a savant or be willing to trust the savants. Climate change originated as a problem based on Fourier’s thermodynamics calculations in the 19th century. Decades of advances in elite Northern science (linked to environmentalism as a cultural movement) fed into a drive for advanced computer simulation of climate calculations, with climate science and advances in computational power driving each other to ever-ethereal heights. In fact the either-or dead-end of trusting the science or denying the problem is an artifact of theparticularistic (dare I say it?) American commitment to science/anti-science dualism.

This conundrum means ‘we’ will trust ‘our’ scientists if we must, but there’s no way we’re going to trust marginalized brown people who might stand to gain from what they say. One may trust the numbers, or one might trust one’s neighbors – hopefully these things would confirm each other. I have no patience at all for claims for more and better rationalism as a solution at this point: it assumes that things were going more or less fine as it was when in fact things were deeply messed up. George Monbiot‘s response to the email thing left me breathless. He’s never felt so alone? Yes, that’s what rationalism will do to you. Try talking to other people for once – and ignore the skeptics. But another way of saying this is that precisely what’s excluded in the science/anti-science conundrum is the fact that the status quo is deeply political. The obvious way out is to simply disenfranchise the skeptics who after all simply critique the science as a wedge to protect their way of life.

In case anyone thought the whole accounting thing was a bit off – check out Deutsche Bank’s Carbon Counter. Their little slogan? “Know the Number.”

Bigger news might be the article in Science this week (thanks to Caroline for telling me about it) in which Searchinger et al detail “Fixing a Critical Climate Accounting Error” in the Kyoto Protocol, namely the failure to account for biomass emissions, for instance from deforestation, biofuels or land use change. Of course other accounting protocols, especially those related to REDD offsets for new carbon markets, do pay attention to these things – albeit across a heterogeneous procedural landscape. This is part and parcel of why carbon investors like Deutsche Bank will have a field day exploiting the intricate topographies of these investment-cum-emissions terrain. (Think derivatives.)

Personally I’m more interested in the rights scenarios implied in this landscape. But there’s no argument that a strong global agreement with any carbon trading provision will prove incredibly important to financial markets at least for the near-term.

A new proposal for a numerical climate change index is being debated. The idea is to have a single index, like the Dow Jones, which people read as an index of how the climate is changing on a par with reading the Dow as if it told you the health of the economy.

The report from the Christian Science Monitor is here.

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.