Climate denial is losing ground, but the forces that produced it persist. While tools for evaluating quantitative aspects of climate action are maturing, tools for qualitative evaluation remain underdeveloped and require investment, deep thinking, and political analysis.
Denial and Other Devils
What stops climate action? During the first decade and a half of the twenty-first century, climate denial remained a viable strategy for fossil fuel interests and their allies. During the Bush years this took the form of outright rejection of the science.
One might recall the striking image of Senator Inhofe, snowball in hand mid-Congress. Inhofe may have been an apt symbol of these forces during the Bush and Obama years — but no longer. Open denial is the devil we know. We must now ask: What devils have we yet to meet?
In the Obama years polling suggests audiences continued to accept a slightly different form of this rejection, moving from “climate change does not exist” to “climate change will not hurt me” — a subtler denial. Either way, Republicans remained intransigent blockers of climate action. Now, even this façade of ignorance is crumbling in the face of visible climate-fueled disasters and noticeable warming.
2015, the year of Inhofe’s snowball, was also the year of the Paris agreement. Indeed, climate policy is coming, one way or another, as suggests the UN paper “The Inevitable Policy Response.”
However blithe it may sound to suggest, we are not ready for it.
Denial has in fact been the norm for so long that most U.S. activists recognize any climate action as positive. One less-remarked-upon consequence is that the U.S. community remains immature when it comes to spotting bad climate policy.
This immaturity is not equally distributed across the many ways that climate policy can be inappropriate or ineffective.
In recent years, major forces have emerged to calibrate reception of climate actions against their quantitative ambition. On the political side, 350.org and then Sunrise Movement rejected “politically feasible” climate action and grounded activist rhetoric in redlines pulled from scientific literature. On the corporate side, the Science Based Target initiative and related currents work backwards from what is scientifically necessary to provide an objective measuring stick for business climate commitments. The IPCC special report on 1.5 degrees bolstered both efforts, and temperature alignment is the common denominator most climate action reduces down to, publicly.
Each of these developments, however, focus primarily on the quantity of climate action. But there are many different types of climate action, not just mitigation or adaptation but also actions which involve inventing a new business model, actions which deepen existing models, actions which require switching models, and so on. We are intuitively aware that these are qualitatively different but lack the kind of taxonomy that the SBTi provides for evaluating ambition in a strictly numerical fashion.
In a few ways we have begun work on frameworks to identify qualitatively bad climate action. We must develop these frameworks posthaste; for while they will never be as cut-and-dried as a single numerical index (and indeed we should be wary of such indexes), their development will strengthen us for the battles ahead.
Axes of Analysis
It is time to talk about what guises the tendencies that produced climate inaction will take under the hegemony of climate action.
In a recent discussion on the Belt and Road Initiative, colleagues and I wondered whether the U.S. failing its coronavirus response while China reopens would cause developing nations to turn towards China for guidance on our “other crisis,” climate change. What if authoritarianism in fact seemed to help meet this crisis? I remarked that climate action should be evaluated not just by its level of ambition (quantitative) but by and for whom it is made.
In doing so, I drew upon a more complicated framework, the analysis of political scientists Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright, authors of Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future. They have their own square with two axes, different from the above.
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Mann and Wainwright introduce planetary sovereignty, “defined by an exception³ proclaimed in the name of preserving life on Earth.” It is “almost certainly to be exercised by a collection of powers coordinated to ‘save the planet.’” The sovereign will “determine what measures are necessary and what and who must be sacrificed in the interests of life on Earth.”
Global actors already tread the terrain of planetary sovereignty, invoking and disputing the powers it confers. In August 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron threatened war against Brazil if the Amazon fires could not be controlled, prompting commentators to question whether the nation-state could survive climate change. Planetary sovereignty can transcend the nation-state but not existing power structures and hierarchies. These are in fact best positioned to invoke sovereignty, claim the mantle of savior, and pick winners.
It is easy to see how these interests might invoke climate change but act only as necessary to save themselves. Wall Street has begrudgingly recognized the need to cut ties with the most egregious elements of fossil capitalism, acting directly (bans on certain types of extraction) and indirectly (ESG investing) to coordinate the exclusion of certain activities. This drama is analogous to The Godfather Part Two, when Michael Corleone has his brother Fredo taken out onto the lake and executed because Fredo had become a liability to the family.
Even if the planetary sovereign gets the quantitative aspect of climate action (“ambition”) right, the qualitative aspects can go quite wrong. Climate action in this regime may be characterized by walls to keep out climate refugees, violent extraction of heavy metals needed for new batteries, or flooding of indigenous communities to power hydroelectric dams.
We do not need to agree precisely with Mann & Wainwright’s analysis to learn from it. Far from academic, these issues — and our immature approach to them — in fact pose a singular threat towards the breakdown of multilateral climate progress through the UNFCCC. Imagine how the proposal to boycott Chinese solar panels that may have been produced with forced labor in Xinjiang could ramify into a general withdrawal of cooperation on climate change between the two indispensable actors in international climate negotiations. The Paris framework emphasizes bottom-up commitments from the national level but this does not eliminate trade-offs between and within nations.
Arms of the Leviathan
As climate advocates and researchers, we study and query who gets what resources where, when, how and why. These are inherently questions of politics.
Much of the climate movement in the United States is intimately bound up with existing power structures; what isn’t? If you want funding, you ask a corporation or a foundation. If you organize without funding, you need time, and that’s expensive, too.
For the most part, we know this. Greenwashing is no less evil for being overt; arguably, even more so. But rather than expounding further on these fairly overt “arms of the Leviathan,” I would like to explore some of the more unexpected ways that we in the climate research and advocacy world might unthinkingly transmit inequality and hamstring our own progress.
The point is that something undertaken in the name of climate action is not necessarily an unvarnished good⁵, and deciding between tradeoffs necessarily introduces political questions which require political analysis and ultimately political commitments to untangle.
1. When Big Data Causes Bigger Problems
First, by taking three examples from the interface of “Big Data” with climate, I will suggest that even where our commitment to transparency and impartiality may seem most evident, regressive tendencies can take hold.⁶ Full data transparency has a democratic ring to it, but empowers only those with the time, resources, and expertise to understand and act on it — a vanishingly small elite. Large firms are scooping up climate-related data for an edge on competitors at a frightening rate. This empowers a simple regressive loop, fed by data: simple arbitrage.
These analytics, however, never claimed to serve anyone other than the firms that purchase them; the examples I focus on come from good-faith public efforts at climate action. These examples are only illustrative, not comprehensive.
- Sovereign credit scores incorporating climate impacts could drive a development doom loop. Some of the nations least responsible for climate change bear the greatest sovereign risk, including not just small island developing states but also India. Those least responsible and least capable of dealing with climate change could see their access to capital disappear, making it harder to make the investments necessary for adaptation or transition.
- The second coming of housing segregation, powered by climate analytics. At a domestic level, similar dynamics could make climate-resilient real estate more expensive, pushing poor families towards the real estate least protected from climate impacts. Explicitly pricing flood risk into mortgage valuation, for example, is already exacerbating an already-existing tendency pushing poorer people towards climate frontlines (e.g. Filatova & de Koning 2020). Pricing in climate risk may be “good” on the aggregate, but may be very bad in individual instances, and certainly for equality if safeguards are not built in. Given that rich people live in valuable housing, any framework for guiding interventions based on protecting the most economic value will prioritize the rich.
- Water-Peace-Security reboots predictive policing. “Predictive policing” models tend to launder and retrench inequalities. Any machine learning incorporates assumptions on the part of its designers and any bias baked into its data set. Our model concluded water was likely to drive conflict in the Middle East, hardly a novel conclusion — but how did the model control for factors of political and historical contingency in its dataset, especially colonialism, which may be a more powerful explanatory factor?10 Perhaps the scenario I am most concerned about with this tool is one in which it is used as a pretext for preemptive military intervention; throughout the sordid history of colonialism rich countries have cited paternalistic notions of suzerainty while robbing poorer nations blind.
2. Will climate action drive a heavy metal apocalypse?
Optimizing for any given outcome can unwelcome outcomes outside the area of optimization. I began to think more deeply and politically about this example after studying in Bolivia, a lithium-rich nation, in 2011 and 2012.
Batteries and solar panels must be manufactured at gigantic scales if we are to transition our energy economy from fossil fuels to renewables. These require massive amounts of heavy metals, specifically lithium, nickel, and cobalt. Sites of heavy-metal extraction may become “sacrifice zones” to the altar of the renewables revolution. Moreover, just as the dumping of carbon into the atmosphere at a rate natural processes could not absorb generated global warming, heavy metal waste products could accumulate in further “sacrifice zones” or leach into the hydrological cycle.¹¹ Clearly, opposition to lithium mining in the Inland Empire in California and Gaston County in North Carolina cannot be dismissed mere NIMBYism.
3. Who will net zero leave in the cold?
The failures of a first generation of offsets seem to have been forgotten quickly. Failures of transparency and verification abounded, with poor countries’ governance failures blamed rather than rich countries’ rush for ablution. Financial markets moved ahead of basic science about how forests sequester carbon. Disney kicked indigenous communities out of the forest it bought to offset cruise ship emissions.
Yet, as soon as the 1.5 report was out, rich countries used its urgency as cover: We will need negative emissions. Whether this represents a dodge from painful absolute emissions reductions is beyond my ken to say. Instead, I point out that by marketizing offsets — inertia being what it is — we enable exactly those parties most historically responsible — the richest companies and countries — for emissions to stave off reductions the longest and then, paradoxically pay the least (when the cost curve has fallen). When an offset (or onsite negative emissions technology) is sold on the market, under any circumstance of scarcity it will go for a price higher than some parties will be willing and able to pay. That means those unable to pay reduce emissions, regardless of the impact on their welfare. How punitive will enforcement become? What moral opprobrium will observers summon, and how soon until it draws from darker wells — racism, geopolitical tensions — than we might now hope?
This is without skepticism as to the availability of credible offsets, their monitoring and evaluation, the tradeoffs to agriculture from replanting of trees, et cetera, though all these deserve much research. There are any number of possibly regressive entanglements involved, and my line of criticism here is not with the considerable moral hazard of negative emissions per se but with the likelihood that a trading system accepting actors of inequal status will regenerate and launder these inequalities through the lens of what is “necessary” under the logic of net zero — possibly losing credibility in the process and bringing us back to square one with mistrust on our minds.¹²
The interventions we advocate occur on such a grand scale that they cannot help but have repercussions — cultural, political, and economic, as well as environmental. What these issues require are not just problem-solving but system-balancing — a teleological demand that cannot help but raise questions about the kind of society we aim for with climate action.¹³ Ultimately, this memo might be taken as a request for us to detail and disclose this future situation at which we aim our agential powers.
A Course of Action
Climate change is a tragedy, borne of good intentions, unseen until too late. Aristotle named this moment of recognition, when the rose-tinted glasses turn blood-soaked, anagnorisis. Our goal is to preempt this tragic recognition and recognize danger before it is too late. Here are a few inexhaustive recommendations for avenues through which we might explore qualitative analysis of climate action.
1. Bolster Existing Guardrails
This means not just investing heavily in research safeguards, independent audits, compliance and the like, but maintaining a more diverse personnel from staff to board in our organizations and fostering an environment where actions flow from research conclusions and our staff, not from the priorities of powerful corporations, governments, and individuals.
2. Good Tools in the Hands of Bad Actors
Whenever we release a new tool, our review process should include a test to uncover unintended uses and side effects of the tool. What bad-faith actors might be interested in the tool? What would be the worst use they could put it towards? Can these worst uses be prevented? Answers to this test should be subject to review, with reviewers assigned the power to reject the release of the tool.
3. Understanding the Limits of Big Data
Our algorithms must transparent and explainable and must take steps to avoid regressive impacts. All algorithms should be published alongside their products.
4. Deepen Political Analysis
We should proscribe qualities of climate action that we do not and will not support. We must better understand what kinds of climate action generate greater political buy-in and which do not. We should develop habits of analysis that encourage thinking beyond the immediate, first-order impacts of an intervention towards an iterative, “lifetime” or “scope 2/3” mindset, asking for example “does this intervention make future positive interventions more or less likely?”
4. Taking the Long View
We need a serious, credible, long-term exploration of negative externalities from the renewable energy economy by 2100, including creation of toxic waste, environmental justice in the context of renewable energy, extractive industries and national “resource curses” and more. Other “very-long-term” systems analyses may be warranted, alongside an immediate Rawlsian imperative to pursue no climate action that deepens the plight of the worst off. In general, we must reserve time for ourselves to look up and consider the forest and not just the trees, the people and not just the numbers.
Throughout, this analysis has to do with a holistic focus on Paris alignment, encompassing climate resilience and the just transition as equal to emissions reductions, but it is not commensurate with it, for it also includes a concern for spotting and rejecting actions which reduce the long-term viability of these same goals.
The simple test: We will be on the right track when we learn to say “no” to something sold to us as climate action.
³ The state of exception or emergency is the subject of deep ambiguity in my orientation towards climate movements. On the one hand, emergency can shake off complacency and identify the need for rupture with systems beyond salvaging. On the other hand, emergency can be arrogated by powers inimical to liberation, suspending the rule of law that protects the vulnerable (c.f. Giorgio Agamben, as discussed in “Emergency & I”).
⁵ In a sign of the times, Republicans presenting an alternative to Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate argued not that climate change is a hoax but that “lefty” solutions had actually caused emissions to rise — notable for our purposes both because Republicans now campaign for half measures (which our existing critical apparatus can dismantle on quantitative grounds) but also because it foresees post-denialist strategies of qualitative assault.
⁶ Anthropologist James Ferguson’s work on inequality laundered by international development organizations through the act of “rendering technical,” and Michel Foucault’s notion of the “instrument-effect,” which occurs beyond agency, shape my thinking here.
¹¹ C.f. Riofrancos 2020, Resource Radicals; Riofrancos, Aronoff, Battistoni, Aldana Cohen, 2019, A Planet to Win.
¹² Economic historian Adam Tooze examines whether the advertised “net” European benefit from Net Zero in Europe elides the essentially uneven and combined nature of decarbonization — essentially, lying by omission about the fact that by country, region and locale there will be losers as well as winners. (link)
¹³ Geographer Andreas Malm argues in The Progress of This Storm that a) climate change hyper-intensifies human agency, b) a successful response to climate change requires foregrounding human agency, and c) agency, as separate from causality, envisions a specific and counterfactual state of affairs.