We Are the Climate Change Complacency We Seek

Politicians in Paris didn’t accomplish nearly enough. And they won’t until a more focused environmental movement makes them.

An activist joins others to form a giant red line during a demonstration near the Arc de Triomphe at the Avenue de la Grande armee boulevard in Paris on December 12, 2015, as a proposed 195-nation accord to curb emissions of the heat-trapping gases that threaten to wreak havoc on Earth's climate system is to be presented at the United Nations conference on climate change COP21 in Le Bourget, on the outskirts of Paris.  AFP PHOTO / ALAIN JOCARD / AFP / ALAIN JOCARD        (Photo credit should read ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images)
An activist joins others to form a giant red line during a demonstration near the Arc de Triomphe at the Avenue de la Grande armee boulevard in Paris on December 12, 2015, as a proposed 195-nation accord to curb emissions of the heat-trapping gases that threaten to wreak havoc on Earth's climate system is to be presented at the United Nations conference on climate change COP21 in Le Bourget, on the outskirts of Paris. AFP PHOTO / ALAIN JOCARD / AFP / ALAIN JOCARD (Photo credit should read ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images)

There is something heartening in the rapt attention that liberal media (and social media) have paid the Paris climate negotiations. To an American, the whole affair resembles the attitude we tend to take toward symbolically important Supreme Court decisions, such as the embrace of marriage equality in June of 2015: “Tell us who we are!” the observers implored the elite decision-makers.

And who we are, the consensus reception of the COP21 agreement holds, is at least not hopeless. The New York Times called the pact “a healing step” and argued that, by highlighting the gap between what the world needs to do and what it is now doing, the document points toward more progress. Combined with news that China’s slowing economy looked set to stop global growth in greenhouse-gas emissions for the year, the agreement became the much-sought “inflection point” toward a more stable planet.

Anyone who has been following the coverage knows that the agreement is cobbled together from national commitments that are officially voluntary, that is, not even notionally enforceable as international law. (Stronger language would have required approval by the U.S. Senate, and the Senate would reject it.) It’s also common knowledge that the voluntary commitments don’t add up to enough cuts to hit the plan’s target of a 2-degree Celsius increase in global temperatures. (The best-case scenario is closer to 3 degrees, and the text of the agreement points out that 1.5 degrees would be much better.)

On the one hand, the whole affair reflects recognition that the future of the planet is an inescapably political question: In our Anthropocene era, the Earth we inhabit will be the Earth we have made, and politics is the only way to make collective, intentional, binding decisions about how to shape this place. Groups like and its allies elsewhere have begun turning this insight into action, and the activists in Paris were an approved part of the action, entirely expected to comment on the (in)adequacy of the agreement and even granted an official protest, an exception to the state-of-emergency lockdown that otherwise continues in France after the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks.

On the other hand, the politics of climate change remains too shallow and weak even to turn this agreement into real change. All the action now returns to the 188 countries that, in theory, are now going to cut their carbon emissions. China (accounting for some 30 percent of global emissions) is dealing with a destabilizing economic slowdown, Russia (6 percent or so) with its military engagements in Ukraine and Syria and the plummeting price of oil, and the United States (about 15 percent) with new alarm over terror — just to name a few of the important actors. In case anyone had forgotten, one of the major parties in the United States doesn’t believe in climate change, and its candidates are moving far to the right in early stages of the current national election. The domestic scenes in most countries don’t suggest a real “inflection point” away from the track the world has been on since the 1992-97 Kyoto Protocol, in which many developed countries committed to cutting emissions below 1990 levels: Soon, global emissions will be double what they were in 1990.

These are the limits of what we might call the Statesmen’s Anthropocene, the planet-shaping politics of high-visibility diplomacy. The high visibility doesn’t translate into high stakes, because national governments can’t deliver results through nonbinding international agreements. Indeed — while one hates to sound a cynical note in a rare moment of optimism — it’s all too easy for climate activism, moral exhortation, and toothless but high-minded agreements to form a single constellation of pseudo-politics: business-as-usual, but with periodic sermons on the importance of climate responsibility.

Because this is an open secret in and around Paris, optimists about the new agreement are pointing toward a second alternative, which I’d call the Neoliberal Anthropocene, or, to borrow from some other commentators, the Good Capitalocene. Here, no one really believes in political change, but they hope some mix of investment policies and exhortations will spur private capital to remake the world, specifically through crash investments in renewable energy sources. As Secretary of State John Kerry put it on Dec. 12, “It won’t be governments that actually make the decision […] It will be the genius of the American spirit. It will be business unleashed.” But exactly how “business” has been “leashed” up to this point is, to put it charitably, obscure, and even more obscure is how a set of nonbinding national goals is going to let slip the cute-and-friendly dogs of green capitalism. Kerry said that governments were “sending literally a critical message” to global markets. (It is hard to parse the idea of sending a signal only figuratively, but never mind.) But the bottom line is — literally — the only signal private capital has ever required.

Strong and coordinated public policies could put fossil-fuel companies in a corner, keep coal and oil in the ground, and press forward with solar, wind, and other no-burn sources of energy. Because the politicians gathered in Paris cannot deliver these changes, they are, in effect, turning to private capital and saying, “Save us from ourselves.” But absent changing the actual cost-structure of the energy economy, such as by taxing carbon, states have no way to spur this action. There’s going to be plenty of private investment, but it will track profit opportunities under the present cost structure, meaning renewables will run in (miniature) parallel to continued drilling and mining, and investment will follow the money, not implement any kind of plan for an equitable global sharing of the burdens of climate change.

All of this is why many of us, from journalist Naomi Klein to me, hope for a third alternative, a Democratic Anthropocene. In this future, deepened and intensified movements for climate responsibility would spur real political action, pivoting the economy toward renewable energy and, more basically, start reworking economic life to produce a greener, fairer, and more secure world. This is what it would take to make real climate politics, rather than the theatrical politics of the Statesmen’s Anthropocene. The movements would likely be at least partly international, reflecting the scope of the problem and its causes. Their targets, though, would have to be national governments, because, unlike international conferences, those old-fashioned states still have the power to make deep and binding changes to economic order.

The trouble, as Alyssa Battistoni points out in a smart and disheartening essay in Jacobin, is that the movements haven’t emerged. is a fine and heartening thing, and the best start we have, but it isn’t big enough or strong enough. The seven-year fight over the Keystone XL pipeline, which President Obama finally vetoed, brought the movement much less growth and impact than is needed. The inchoate global movement that Naomi Klein calls Blockadia — the spectrum of poor, indigenous, and (symbolically inconvenient but reliably prominent) middle-class and elite political irruptions over fossil-fuel development and other environmental depredation — has done nothing to scale up into the kind of power that could set business-as-usual governments back on their heels. Divestment campaigns have persuaded a few institutions to pull their money from fossil fuels, which is excellent; but actually turning those industries into pariahs will take a lot more than wins with rich and sympathetic investors like Stanford University (which has plenty of other places to put its ample endowment).

Left movement politics these days has a few hallmarks: de-centered or leaderless organization (think Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and the global encampment movements of 2011); disdain for traditional appeals to state power in pursuit of specific agenda items (same); a tendency to cosmopolitanism (campaigns for refugee and migrant rights that regard national borders more or less as human-rights violations); and a hope to unite all the world’s marginalized populations in a movement for justice (Blockadia again, and perhaps all of the above). Each of these has its real moral appeal. Each also faces an uphill fight in trying to build a movement that can wield real power at the national level while coordinating its goals internationally. Leaders, spokespeople, and programs crystallize visibility and coordination. Engagement with elites and middle classes is probably indispensable; so is leadership that includes those groups. (This is the reality of National governments, and the national cultures and traditions in which they operate, are the pivots on which this politics will have to turn in practice.

There is a disheartening paradox here. The world we have made, of growth-oriented capitalist nation-states, is careening toward climate disaster. Its diplomatic theatrics and deference to investors’ bottom lines are not going to solve the problem. It is natural to wish that they could, or to veer to the opposite extreme, and say that we need another world, and should start building it in non-hierarchical, truly inclusive, and collaborative movements. But for very hard-nosed reasons, the next world, if it is going to be at all, has to be birthed from this one, by some of its familiar means, but toward new ends. For now, the one world is feverishly dying, and the other is powerless to be born. No word from Paris, from Silicon Valley, or from Blockadia shows the way forward yet.

Photo credit: ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images

Jedediah Purdy is Robinson O. Everett Professor of Law at Duke University School of Law.

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