Planetary Politics

In 2000, the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and the ecologist Eugene Stoermer proposed that the earth had entered a new age. The Holocene period, the geological term for the past 11,500 years, had ...

In 2000, the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and the ecologist Eugene Stoermer proposed that the earth had entered a new age. The Holocene period, the geological term for the past 11,500 years, had given way to a new epoch—the Anthropocene. A warmer, more extreme, and less predictable pattern of weather had replaced the Holocene’s relatively stable climate. By emitting the greenhouse gases of industrial society, our species has become a geological agent. The Anthropocene names that critical juncture, and unambiguously fingers its human causes.1 You might think that we have bigger things to worry about than the finer points of geological nomenclature. Yet the notion of the Anthropocene has become a matter of fierce debate, and not just among scientists.

Geology has a special role to play in the science of climate change because it shows so vividly how humans are influencing the life-supporting system of the planet. After billions of years when the climate of our planet was shaped by natural variability, we have now for the first time entered an age when the climate of the earth is being shaped principally by human rather than natural forces. A geological perspective reveals the full temporal and spatial scale of the shift.

Our historical moment must be compared to changes in the multimillion-year time frame within which scientists believe the earth has existed, or deep time. If emissions continue unabated, our era of anthropogenic warming will be on par with episodes of rapid change in the geological past, such as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) event 55 million years ago, which raised global temperatures 5–8 ºC over a few millennia. Geological time is also the appropriate measure for thinking about the future effects of climate change. A significant part of our carbon dioxide emissions will linger in the atmosphere for tens of thousands of years.2

For the past several years, in a process that is at once democratic and bureaucratic, the small group of men and women in the Anthropocene Working Group have been debating the question of naming our epochal shift, arguing over whether to use the official weight of the group to declare a new geological epoch and, if so, how to demarcate it from the Holocene. The Working Group, which represents the million members of the International Union of the Geological Sciences, consists of 38 scholars drawn from the natural and social sciences. The Working Group is, in turn, part of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, which oversees and regulates the stratigraphical scale of the Quaternary period (defined as the current and most recent period of geological time, estimated at roughly 2.6 million years). The appointed members of the Working Group are deliberating to establish the criteria for identifying the specific geological signature of the Anthropocene.3 That definition will be confirmed or rejected in 2016 with votes in the Subcommission and its parent body, the International Commission on Stratigraphy.

Geologists assess the impact of humanity by the sediments we leave behind. Such man-made geological markers might include microplastics, magnetic minerals, radioisotopes, and so forth, what is sometimes jokingly referred to as the “Coca-Cola layer.” In order to discover the beginning of the Anthropocene, the geologists are looking for a specific signature, a Global Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP), popularly known as a “golden spike,” which will endure for millennia and be visible to observers in the far future. At the moment, there is a host of competing dates for the golden spike of the Anthropocene, including 1610, 1784, 1945, and 1964. Each chronological option comes with its own technical rationale about what kind of geological marker might persist into the deep future.

The problem of the Anthropocene has recently been attracting the attention of historians. This should come as no surprise, since the geology of planetary change is explicitly a human and historical process. Unlike previous golden spikes, each proposed starting date of the Anthropocene is fraught with social, economic, and political meaning. Should we locate the origin of the epoch in the early phase of European imperial expansion, or Britain’s Industrial Revolution, or the outset of the Cold War? There is also a mounting critical reaction to the concept by scholars who think that an excessive reliance on natural science risks obscuring fundamental questions of causation and responsibility. Why should we bother with geological technicalities when the history of empire and capitalism seems to provide a more adequate explanation for the current crisis? Climate change is also animating historical research more generally, stimulating scholars to rethink major episodes of human history like the Little Ice Age and the Industrial Revolution.4

Perhaps the most pressing task at the moment is to explain the emergence of climate change as a scientific and political problem at the end of the 20th century. We already have several important pieces of this puzzle: Paul Edwards’s A Vast Machine shows how the rise of satellite monitoring and computer analysis made it possible to construct powerful new models of the planetary climate over time; Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway’s Merchants of Doubt sheds light on the birth of know-nothing denialism in the United States; and Jacob Darwin Hamblin’s Arming Mother Nature investigates how Cold War fears of a nuclear apocalypse helped shape environmentalist ideology.5

To this trio of useful studies we can add Joshua Howe’s excellent Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming—the first study to explore the links between climate science and postwar politics in depth. Howe frames his story around the Keeling Curve, the graph constructed by the American scientist Charles David Keeling using data gathered at Mauna Loa from 1958 onward, which first demonstrated a trend of rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Keeling’s curve captured in striking visual form the threat of anthropogenic climate change, and yet growing scientific certainty has failed to translate into effective politics. Howe contrasts the apparent clarity of the Keeling Curve with the repeated fiascos of mitigation policy, from the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 to the Copenhagen summit of 2009. Despite the sustained efforts of climate scientists, the international community has not been able to curb the use of fossil fuels. At this point, we are locked into a pattern of 1–2 °F warming and may face far greater increases in temperature if emissions do not diminish.

How do we explain the meager results of this long campaign for mitigation? Why has climate change been such an intractable problem to resolve? Some critics see consumer complacency as the basic problem. Others point the finger at the power of fossil fuel corporations. The moral philosopher Stephen Gardiner stresses the problem of dispersed agency: poor people and future generations bear the brunt of consumption in affluent nations.6 Howe opts for an interpretation that combines material, institutional, and intellectual factors. The peculiar character of carbon dioxide is at the root of the problem. Climate change is a tragedy without “true heroes” or “true villains.” Invisible, intangible, and slow-acting, carbon dioxide has little in common with other environmental problems. It took more than a century for the science of greenhouse gases to discover the emissions triggered by the Industrial Revolution. The threat of climate change also involves a delay between emissions and environmental effects. Until quite recently, it has been relatively easy to write off climate change as a long-term threat rather than a clear and present danger. Finally, the planetary scale of the phenomenon transcends conventional forms of environmental activism. Despite the pervasive role of fossil fuels in our material world, ordinary people have lacked the technology and knowledge to monitor the place of carbon dioxide in everyday life. Instead, scientists have wielded an effective monopoly on describing and measuring emissions.

We have now for the first time entered an age when the climate of the earth is being shaped principally by human rather than natural forces.

For Howe, the privileged role of expert knowledge in the debate explains much about the failure of climate policy. From the beginning, climate scientists have optimistically assumed that the political battle could be won through scientific consensus. Good science was by definition neutral, objective, and methodologically rigorous. In this top-down model, science had a “forcing” power to shape politics. Improved data and better models would overcome inertia and resistance in the public realm.

Such an idealistic understanding of knowledge was in great part a product of the American experience in the Cold War. The invention of the atomic bomb suggested that humans could influence the environment on a truly global scale. The oceanographer Roger Revelle, David Keeling’s patron and sponsor, was able to secure government funding for carbon dioxide research by linking climate science with questions of national security.

The second half of Howe’s book investigates the fate of climate science after 1980. Ronald Reagan’s hostile approach to environmental policy provoked a set of new alliances between climate scientists, environmentalists, and Democratic politicians. In the midst of the drought-stricken summer of 1988, the NASA scientist James Hansen testified in Congress that climate change was a serious threat to the nation and the planet. The media response to the hearings turned global warming into a major political issue in the presidential election that year. At the same time, the Swedish scientist Bert Bolin succeeded in establishing the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This initiative to review climate science and recommend targets for greenhouse gas emissions was modeled in part on the success of the 1987 Montreal Protocol, the international treaty to protect the ozone layer in the atmosphere by phasing out the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) in consumer goods like aerosol cans and refrigerators. But the analogy between CFC and carbon dioxide proved sadly misguided. Despite the growing scientific certainty about climate change in the five assessment reports of the IPCC, there has been no effective policy of mitigation, let alone a phaseout of fossil fuels across the world.

The end of the Cold War brought about an unexpected and fundamental change in the climate debate. The gravity of American policy shifted from international confrontation toward more domestic concerns. In environmental decision-making, economics became the “key rubric” of analysis. On the left, this meant an ideology of sustainable development, which insisted on the compatibility of economic growth with environmentalist priorities. On the right, observers marshaled cost-benefit analysis to downplay the threat of climate change. They applied the precautionary principle (if there is no scientific consensus that a particular action is harmless, then err toward caution) to the economy rather than the environment, arguing that environmental policies harmful to the economy must be avoided as much as possible. Since the 1990s, these efforts to place the problem of the environment in an economic framework have proliferated, giving rise to approaches such as discounting and ecological services. The method of discounting attempts to assess the present cost of future damages, based on controversial assumptions about the rate of economic growth and the moral weight of the welfare of future generations. The concept of ecological services aims to put an economic value on various essential aspects of ecosystems, including, for example, functions like pollination, water purification, and biodiversity, which have previously been treated as “free gifts” of nature.

Howe ends his book with a plea for moral, political, and economic involvement at smaller scales. Local and regional communities can achieve reductions in emissions even when national policies and international treaties fail. By placing moral values at the core of the climate change debate, we might be able to open up alternative routes to change, distinct from the top-down model of scientific persuasion. Raising local awareness about the global environmental impact of Western fossil-fuel lifestyles could prove an effective means toward this end (consider, for example, the growing movement among universities and charities to divest themselves of financial assets in fossil fuel companies).

By placing moral values at the core of the climate change debate, we might be able to open up alternative routes to change.

The introduction of the Anthropocene into science and popular culture after 2000 offers a new twist to the problem of climate politics. On the one hand, the science of the Anthropocene involves a technical argument grounded in earth system science and stratigraphy. In this sense, it conforms to the top-down form of scientific discourse Howe describes. On the other hand, the Anthropocene also incorporates a broader vision of the place of mankind in nature and history. A 2011 essay by Will Steffen, Paul Crutzen, Jacques Grinevald, and John McNeill defines the Anthropocene as a process of increasing awareness about our moral responsibility as a species.7 We now recognize for the first time the need to safeguard the earth system as a whole by maintaining it in a stable state. Along these lines, Johan Rockström proposes that the stable function of the earth system be defined in terms of nine “planetary boundaries,” including thresholds of biodiversity loss, oceanic acidification, atmospheric aerosol loading, stratospheric ozone depletion, and greenhouse gas emissions. Crucially, Rockström’s argument combines technical and quantitative specifications of these boundaries with an explicitly normative argument, deeply rooted in political and religious tradition: “Humanity … needs to become an active steward of all planetary boundaries.”8 This mixture of modern science and ancient morality is hardly a coincidence. Persuasion requires more than information, as Howe notes. Pathos and narrative are an indispensable part of effective politics. In this sense, the concept of the Anthropocene should be understood as an attempt to move beyond conventional scientific norms of objectivity and neutrality.

A recent book by French historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz titled L’Événement Anthropocène
(forthcoming in English translation from Verso as The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History, and Us) explores the broader dimensions of Anthropocene science. They accept the basic claim that anthropogenic climate change has brought about a fundamental change in the human condition and the life of planet, but are deeply critical of how the official narrative of the Anthropocene deals with questions of history, economics, and politics. As a work of scholarship, L’Événement Anthropocène takes the form of a wide-ranging essay that combines elements of environmental history, history of science and technology, and economic and intellectual history, while covering an extensive geographic base including British, American, French, and German cases.

A major theme in the book is the need to recover the full history of the Anthropocene in order to understand our present predicament. Here, Bonneuil and Fressoz adopt Crutzen’s original starting point of 1784 for the Anthropocene. They trace a continuous concern with environmental degradation from the Enlightenment and Victorian thought through the 20th century to the Cold War and the rise of earth system science. It’s clear that we need to resist the notion of the Anthropocene as a sudden and recent emergence into consciousness. Indeed, worries about the fragility of the natural order and resistance to industrial capitalism go all the way back to the 18th century. Already in Comte de Buffon’s essay Les Époques de la nature from 1778 we can detect a precocious conception of humanity as a geological agent, capable of reshaping the face of the earth, including its climate.9

Bonneuil and Fressoz also worry about the notion of collective agency at the heart of the Anthropocence concept. It tempts us to think of humanity as an undifferentiated whole rather than as an assemblage of nations and classes with distinct histories. Why should we attribute the problem of anthropogenic climate change to the species as a whole, when only a minority has emitted the majority of greenhouse gases? This problem has led some observers to call for a different conceptual framework that stresses the capitalist system as the culprit (the “capitalocene” or “econocene”).10 For their part, Bonneuil and Fressoz resist the temptation to throw out the idea of the Anthropocene altogether. Instead, they propose to disaggregate the Keeling Curve (and its extension back to the 18th century) to make the range of contributing factors visible. Such a political history of carbon dioxide spans the entire period of the modern era, from Britain’s Industrial Revolution through the age of high imperialism to the cataclysm of World War II and the new age of American hegemony. Crucially, Bonneuil and Fressoz reject deterministic views of technology and energy. Rather than seeing fossil fuel consumption as a form of irresistible addiction, they emphasize the degree to which political and technological choices have shaped the industrial economy in the last two hundred years.

Like Howe, Bonneuil and Fressoz look to the past to explore our political prospects in the present. They warn that the idea of the Anthropocene might be co-opted to serve narrow sectional interests rather than the public good. Without a strong sense of how our technologies and social systems evolved over time, they argue, the project to manage climate change could pave the way for a technocratic regime, prone to an excessive faith in technical fixes and free markets (with a nod to Michel Foucault, they call this a “geopower” order). What is most needed, according to Bonneuil and Fressoz, is a far-reaching debate, informed by historical knowledge, about our economic and social priorities. We may have passed irreversibly into a new geological age, but this does not mean that we have lost our basic political agency as citizens. A democratic Anthropocene must be anchored in public involvement rather than expert rule. Perhaps the most difficult challenge will be to confront the ideology of cornucopian desires at the heart of industrial society. Modern politics on both the left and the right presumes that economic growth is always a good thing, ignoring the ecological costs of economic development. Bonneuil and Fressoz suggest that it is high time that we begin to question the “absurd idea of infinite economic growth.”

It is hard not to sympathize with this impassioned plea. Yet the scale and speed of climate change might just as well militate against democratic ideals. The problem of practicing politics on a human scale in the Anthropocene is compounded by the need to facilitate a technological transition. We are in a race to reduce our fossil fuel use as quickly as possible. The shape of life in the Anthropocene might take many different forms, depending on the level at which we stabilize our emissions. Can we find ways of mobilizing the public swiftly, or will we be forced to make compromises between our democratic and our environmental priorities? Perhaps serious efforts at mitigation will come about through technological rather than political convergence. The transition to renewable energy might reinforce rather than dispel the kind of messy patchwork of clashing ideologies and power politics that we know all too well from the course of modern history. icon

  1. The ‘Anthropocene,’” IGBP Newsletter, no. 41 (May 2000).
  2. David Archer, The Long Thaw: How Humans are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of Earth’s Climate (Princeton University Press, 2009), pp. 11, 96.
  3. See Colin N. Waters et al., “A Stratigraphical Basis for the Anthropocene,” in A Stratigraphical Basis for the Anthropocene, edited by Colin N. Waters et al. (Geological Society, London, Special Publications, no. 395, March 2014), pp. 1–21; Simon L. Lewis and Mark A Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene,” Nature, vol. 519 (2015).
  4. E. A. Wrigley, Energy and the English Industrial Revolution (Cambridge University Press, 2010); see also John McNeill’s recent review essay in Public Books, “Changing Climates of History” (December 1, 2014).
  5. Paul N. Edwards, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming (MIT Press, 2010); Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (Bloomsbury, 2010); Jacob Darwin Hamblin, Arming Mother Nature: the Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism (Oxford University Press, 2013).
  6. Stephen Gardiner, A Perfect Moral Storm: the Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change (Oxford University Press, 2013).
  7. The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, vol. 369, no. 1938 (March 2011).
  8. Rockström et al., “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” Ecology and Society, vol. 14, no. 2 (2009).
  9. See also Jan Zalasiewicz, “Encore des Buffonades, mon cher comte?,” Origins: Newsletter of the International Big History Association, vol. 4, no. 5 (2014); Clive Hamilton and Jacques Grinevald, “Was the Anthropocene Anticipated?,” Anthropocene Review, vol. 2, no. 1 (2015).
  10. Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg, “The Geology of Mankind: A Critique of the Anthropocene Narrative,” Anthropocene Review, vol. 1, no. 1 (2014).
Featured image: A large stack from the Sault Paper Mill. Photograph by Billy Wilson / Flickr