Imperial Climate: Predictions, Possibilities, Problems
“The ability to alter the climate is of obvious strategic interest to global powers and those invested in the political stability of particular regions.” — Preston, 2013
Capitalism and the Climate
As David Roberts (2010) warned in the beginning of this series, the historical record predicts that control of the mechanisms of geoengineering will be in the hands of the wealthy, following a capitalistic tradition of controlling the means of production and of life. As Szerszynski et al (2013) succinctly say, geoengineering “will become conditioned by economic forces” (2809). In this sense the ability to intentionally modify the climate represents a ‘techno-corporatist’ interpretation of nature as part of a “weak” form of ecological modernisation (Christoff, 1996), and thus sees technological assemblies like geoengineering as a “lifeline for capitalist economies threatened by ecological crisis” (Gibbs, 1998: 5). More bluntly, Brown & Sovacool (2011) tell us that geoengineering “raises the specter of ecological imperialism” (138). Geoengineering is in fact a “regressive” policy option according to Stirling (2014) as such an activity is aligned with “entrenched existing concentrations of power extending out from the energy sector” (15). He continues:
“That a regressive transition built around climate geoengineering is asserted in some quarters to be somehow self-evidently more tractable than a progressive transformation based on renewable energy is an indication not only of the strength of entrenched vested interests in this sector, but of their impact on wider structures, knowledges and expectations alike.” (16)
In this way geoengineering (especially SRM) represents an attempted “quick fix” to the climate crisis whilst “further transferring environmental risk to the poorest countries and the most vulnerable people” in a typical capitalist fashion (SRMGI, 2011: 21). The poorest members of human civilisation, who are predicted to suffer the worst impacts of the climate crisis, are also incidentally “the populations that will be most vulnerable to any negative side effects that geoengineering experiments may have” (Olson, 2011). Meanwhile, while the Global South (or “Third World”) suffers, geoengineering allows capitalism to continue its “high levels of consumption, waste, and greenhouse gas emissions” (Preston, 2013: 26).
The unreliable and heterogeneous regional impacts that correspond with geoengineering efforts could very easily exacerbate geopolitical issues. A professor of the UK Climate Geoengineering Governance project described that “if India had put sulphate particles into the stratosphere, even as a test, two years before the recent floods in Pakistan, no one would ever persuade Pakistan that that had not caused the floods” (Carrington, 2014). And if a country like China, one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing economies, decided to implement geoengineering programmes regardless of an international consensus it would “dramatically alter the dynamics of multilateral climate negotiations” (Edney and Symons, 2014: 308). Geoengineering in effect would become a zero-sum game that would be massively skewed to the already rich and powerful and reflect existing power disparities. As Klein (2014) explains:
“it might be possible to tailor some of these technologies to help the most vulnerable people on the planet, and those who contributed least to the creation of the climate crisis—but not without endangering some of the wealthiest and most powerful regions. So we are left with a question less about technology than about politics: does anyone actually believe that geoengineering will be used to help Africa if that help could come only by putting North America at greater risk of extreme weather?” (276)
Or in another example, indigenous peoples in the Arctic would clearly desire the preservation of sea ice that is critical for their livelihoods, but if the powerful maritime industries preferred “summers with an ice-free Arctic Ocean” for simpler transport logistics it is clear who would get their way. It is no surprise then that because “those who control the heat shield” would use it for their own interests recent efforts to restrict geoengineering have been led by the Global South (Hamilton, 2014).
Structures of democratic (1) governance would also suffer if geoengineering experiments were authorised in the face of a climate emergency and the “nascent architectures of collective environmental governance” would likely be undermined (Clark, 2013). Indeed the lack of an effective international agreement tackling the climate crisis has “already put the legitimacy of democratic processes under strain” (Szerszynski et al., 2013: 2810) and SRM geoengineering is potentially conducive to a “centralised, autocratic, command-and-control world-governing structure” (2812). A “large, sophisticated technological system” such as geoengineering, as Winner (1980) wrote, would be “highly compatible with centralized, hierarchical managerial control” (132).
On the other hand geoengineering could encourage unilateral action by nations willing to mitigate climate change impacts that affect them regardless of the wider impact. The SRMGI (2011) has already warned of the transfer of “environmental risk” from rich nations to poor nations.
Business as Usual
As quoted earlier geoengineering appeals to the figureheads of capitalism as it allows for the continued high levels of production, consumption, and waste endemic to the capitalist system (Preston, 2013) and creates a “lifeline” for capitalist economies to survive the climate crisis (Gibbs, 1998). It preemptively denies the need for social and institutional change demanded by many (e.g. Bookchin, 1980; Battistoni, 2012; Klein, 2014; Out of the Woods, 2015) and maintains the existence of “the power of corporate interests, growth fetishism and the comfortable conservatism of consumer society” (Hamilton, 2013), as well as giving “the green light to burn more coal” and “avoids the need to raise petrol taxes” (Hamilton, 2010). As Li (2009) writes, climate stabilisation measures present unacceptable short-term costs and would slow “the pace of capital accumulation”, and as a result a nation state risking “their competitive position in the world system” is very unlikely (1043).
As per usual, “the expansion of capital trumps actual public interest in protecting the vital conditions of life” (Foster et al., 2010: 71). It is the “paradox” of geoengineering, Klein (2014) tells us, that it does not require any significant change such as emissions reductions, only that we “keep doing what we have done for centuries, only much more so” (267).
As part of this process the issue of climate change undergoes “de-politicization” so it
“is not the system that is the problem, but its pathological syndrome (for which the cure is internal), that is posited as ‘excess’. … The ‘enemy’ is, therefore, always vague, ambiguous, socially empty or vacuous (like ‘CO2’); the ‘enemy’ is a mere thing, not socially embodied, named and counted. While a proper analysis and politics would endorse the view that CO2- as-crisis stands as the pathological symptom of the normal, one that expresses the excesses inscribed in the very normal functioning of the system (i.e. capitalism), the policy architecture around climate change insists that this ‘excessive’ state is not inscribed in the functioning of the system itself, but is an aberration that can be ‘cured’ by mobilizing the very inner dynamics and logic of the system” (Swyngedouw, 2010: 222-3).
Geoengineering also creates significant opportunities for profit as the issue of climate change is forced from the political to the economic realm. There are “substantial economic opportunities” regarding geoengineering technologies including patents, the design of SRM particles and delivery systems, monitoring systems, the transport of raw materials, and financial and compensatory schemes (Szerszynski et al., 2013: 2814). And as Malm (2015) reminds us there are ample opportunities for the “self-made” heroes of capitalism – “Bill Gates is now the world’s number one financial supporter of geoengineering research”.
Indeed, geoengineering has been criticised “for being inextricably linked to market fixes for climate change” such as carbon markets which “would produce the commercial incentive for geoengineering to take off as a for-profit activity” (Buck, 2012: 261). In fact “the prospect of a burgeoning carbon market [helped] to shape the very formation of ocean fertilisation research, even for some of its most seasoned scientists” (Factor, 2015: 318). More bluntly, Fauset (2008) writes that “ocean fertilisation projects and tree plantations are little more than a scam to make money on the carbon market” (63).
From an ecosocialist perspective, geoengineering acts as a way to bypass the “second contradiction of capitalism” (O’Connor, 1998) – that is, “capital’s tendency to destroy its surroundings and undermine its own conditions of production” (Buck, 2012: 255). Indeed, it can be seen as a “class project” that will ensure the “climate system [is] stable enough for existing production systems to continue operating” (Ibid). Geoengineering gives “a new lease on life” for capitalism. As Murray Bookchin told us in 1985:
“Capitalism is not a decaying social order; it is an ever-expanding order that grows beyond the capacity of any society to contain its ravages and cope with its predatory activities. If capitalism is not abolished in one way or another, it will annihilate social life as such or, at least, do an excellent job of undermining it and the biosphere on which all life depends.” (74)
Part Six coming soon
(1) It is debatable if democracy worthy of the name can exist with capitalism. In 1926 Errico Malatesta wrote that
“If classes and individuals exist that are deprived of the means of production and therefore dependent on others with a monopoly over those means, the so-called democratic system can only be a lie, and one which serves to deceive the mass of the people and keep them docile with an outward show of sovereignty, while the rule of the privileged and dominant class is in fact salvaged and consolidated. Such is democracy and such it always has been in a capitalist structure, whatever form it takes, from constitutional monarchy to so-called direct rule.”
More recently Noam Chomsky (1999) wrote
“…democracy requires that people feel a connection to their fellow citizens, and that this connection manifests itself through a variety of nonmarket organizations and institutions. A vibrant political culture needs community groups, libraries, public schools, neighborhood organizations, cooperatives, public meeting places, voluntary associations, and trade unions to provide ways for citizens to meet, communicate, and interact with their fellow citizens. Neoliberal democracy, with its notion of the market über alles, takes dead aim at this sector. Instead of citizens, it produces consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result is an atomized society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralized and socially powerless.” (11)
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