The Real Politics of Climate Change

In a recent Guardian blog posting, John Abraham and Dana Nuccitelli have correctly identified that the global warming ‘debate’ isn’t about science, but about politics. On that point we can agree, but thereafter, almost everything they say precisely fails to expose the status of this political which is at stake in anthropogenic climate change.

Of course the power of climate scepticism cannot be denied. It has been a vigorous force working to prevent action on the restriction of greenhouse gas emissions. Also correct is the observation by Abraham and Nuccitelli, widely supported by research on climate and the media, that ‘denialism’ has mainly been underpinned by ‘free-market’ ideology and its supporting institutions. However, their suggestion that the route towards ‘sustainability’ is through the co-optation of that ideology, with the implementation of a cap-and-trade solution to the control of greenhouse gas emissions is, at best, flawed, and at worst, utopian.

For instance, is the conclusion that, ‘The debate should be about how to best achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions with maximum economic benefit’ really convincing? Even the free-trading ideologue can clearly see that this is an ill-disguised attempt to capture the dominant language of orthodox economics for the political project of controlling greenhouse gas emissions. What this project neglects, however, is the obvious fact that the committed free-trader precisely rejects any notion of a higher, or universal, project in the guidance human actions. What they fear in the climate change ‘debate’ is precisely the emergence of a ground in nature itself, which delimits the possibilities of free human self-realisation. Adam Smith, for instance, imagined markets as enabled by a particular kind of ecology that, once established, could be assumed as a stable, self-regulating basis of exchange. Frederik Albritton Jonnsson has recently wonderfully outlined some of the contraditions stemming from such ideas and their application in his Enlightenment’s Frontier.

The point is that the ‘denialist’ dogma is not simply a contingent ideological obsession. It is a consequence of a traumatic encounter with the real. Line no other threat from ‘nature’, anthropogenic climate change raises the prospect of the collapse of the unspoken environmental assumptions that have sustained the idea that well-being and justice can be guided by the invisible hand. We need to accept the intense reality of this trauma for those who are in denial. Indeed, it may even explain the counter-intuitive observation that denialism has become more popular as the evidence for human induced atmospheric change has hardened.

Rather than responding to this traumatic encounter by fetishitically clinging to it, that is to say by claiming that the market can indeed become the instrument of future atmospheric control, we should work to aid the process of ideological transference. We should embrace ‘denialism’ as a positive symptom of capitalist contradiction, and work to render its meaning more apparent, more self-conscious to its subjects. We must work to show the connections between the crisis in ‘nature’ and the ideological contradictions that this produces. In this, a little knowledge of history may be of enormous importance.

Is it not remarkable, for example, that Abraham and Nuccitelli ignore almost the entire historical context of capitalist development that has led to the current situation? The present of ever rising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere is seen as an almost accidental circumstance. This has crucial consequences for their willingness to pursue a market solution, and for its limits. There is no analysis, for example, of how the global economy came into being. Nor is there any reflection on why capitalism is so dependent on fossil fuels of the kind offered by Timothy Mitchell’s excellent recent book Carbon Democracy. This is a grave fault given that cap-and-trade is clearly reliant on an institution setting a cap that can act as the foundation to a market. Nor is there any analysis of that most fundamental process of historical capitalism, accumulation: “Accumulate, accumulate, that is Moses and the Prophets”.

It is not that cap-and-trade cannot work for some abstract reason, it may. Rather, it is that the real, political question ironically, but far from accidentally, remains unacknowledged by Abraham and Nuccitell. That is whether such a cap could ever be sustained against the profound social and political power of capitalist finance and industry. How is any carbon cap to be maintained against the logic of the accumulation of capital? We have seen in the past decade the profound crisis, political, social and economic, that accompanies any slowdown in capitalist growth. Such a crisis is met with all the resources of the capitalist political structure precisely to maintain accumulation. What political structure could work to maintain a cap if it contradicted the requirements of accumulation?

More than this, if one is willing to set a cap on greenhouse emissions, and fight the battles necessary in terms of the struggle against vested interests, then why not simply go ahead and do so? Why not just make the arbitrary judgment that humanity chooses to survive! Why not just impose the cap politically. Why establish a trade in anything? Why establish a market in carbon credits, a market in precisely the matter of our own destruction? It is precisely to avoid the necessity of making a truly political decision, that is, the choice to survive, that Abraham and Nuccitelli retreat to an alliance with the free-marketeers. Ultimately this the real of the politics of climate change. Not whether, but how, we shall frame a properly communist control over the climatic fate of us all.

Leave a Reply