We’re Not in This Together
by Ajay Singh Chaudhary, April 2020, Baffler No. 51
There is no universal politics of climate change
In November of 2018, fires of “unprecedented speed and ferocity” broke out across Northern and Southern California. The “Camp Fire” in Northern California killed just under ninety people and destroyed approximately nineteen thousand structures. Even with modern safety protocols and building codes, it was the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history. The “Woolsey Fire” in Southern California burned, at the exact same time, nearly one hundred thousand acres. Fires are tricky things to understand. The fires that burn across most of central Africa, for example, are seasonal, mostly contained, and part of a decently well-maintained agricultural cycle. Californian wildfires, while certainly nothing new, are not. They may be sparked by simple heat or a lightning strike, or by a recreational accident or a glitch in the utility grid, but their frequency, intensity, and duration have all unquestionably increased due to anthropogenic climate change.
In current discussions of climate, it is often noted that the countries and communities that have contributed least to the overall phenomenon will be the hardest hit. Even though “national” accounts of, say, carbon emissions can be misleading, this is largely true. The United States, however, is a glaring exception: it is projected to receive the second most devastating economic effects of climate change. This might seem cold comfort to the millions in the Maldives, Micronesia, and similar places whose entire geographies are at risk of a combination of submersion, erosion, and overall uninhabitability. But, in the words of journalist David Wallace-Wells, it seems “a case of eerie karmic balance.” Balance, though, is not a characteristic of the Anthropocene, not historically and not now.
Rather, all that is apocalyptic melts into the Anthropocene. “God is dead, and so too is the Goddess,” remarks McKenzie Wark. Karma too. At first glance, the story of the 2018 California fires is one in which everyone stands together. Rich and poor, black and white, famous and unknown. Media reports observed such celebrity actors and musicians as Miley Cyrus, Liam Hemsworth, and Gerard Butler losing their homes (or parts of them)—just like everyone else. But among the various cultural detritus of the moment, TMZ (of all outlets) reported that Kanye West and Kim Kardashian had avoided this particular fate through the intervention of a private firefighting force. This was not some one-off procurement or out-of-the-ordinary solution. And, beyond their staggering wealth, it had little to do with West or Kardashian personally. Over the past decade and a half, major insurance companies like AIG and Chubb have begun to offer private emergency services “to elite policyholders.” It is one of the more straightforward ways to think about the commodification of risk. Highly expensive assets face catastrophic threat; the insurance company packages that threat and sells two attractive products. The first is insurance against climate damage; the second is access to services to prevent having to pay out when damage occurs. From the firm’s point of view, they’ve sold two products at a tidy profit and avoided the exorbitant payout involved with actually covering insured losses. From the client’s point of view, despite a steep cost, the financial and psychological burden of losing their home is avoided. For these two parties, it is, indeed, a win-win scenario.
However, there are “externalities,” so to speak, in privatized social services. Such private services skirt or run right over what tiny regulations exist for them. They physically impede and complicate public emergency services. Protecting assets can be at odds with saving lives. And the same companies lobby for tax and infrastructure policies that necessitate their services, starving the public emergency service which, in the case of California, deploys severely underpaid incarcerated people to enhance dwindling state capacity. Although insurance companies and the emergency service contractors themselves focus on the high-end market, they are increasingly creating more affordable, less comprehensive packages for lower tiers of customers. This kind of tiered access to services is familiar to anyone who has encountered private or privatized social goods, like market-based health insurance. And yet it is also an extreme intensification, where there is seemingly no obstacle to privatized governance. In this example, we can see one microcosm of what I call right-wing climate realism.
One of the most common misconceptions concerning climate change is that it produces, or even requires, a united humanity. In that tale, the crisis in the abstract is a “common enemy,” and a perfectly universal subject is finally possible in coming to “experience” ourselves “as a geological agent,” through which a universal “we” is constituted in a “shared sense of catastrophe.” The story I am telling you is different. In this story, there is no universal “we.” Climate change is not the apocalypse, and it does not fall on all equally, or even, in at least a few senses, on everyone at all.
The idea of right-wing climate realism can strike many as odd in the first instance. Since climate change is universal, the assumption runs, and since we can turn to a “scientific” politics, there is really only one “climate realism,” and the primary task is to communicate, persuade, and teach the science from which the one-true-politick will emerge. All that stands in the way of this is the intransigence of non-believers. This is, perhaps ironically, a familiar story: it is a Christian story of gospel and evangelism. But the science does not have a single politics. Right-wing climate realism encompasses a plausible and thoroughly realistic—in terms of power and in terms of ecology—set of positions in which a business-as-usual scenario is absolutely worth it. Even given the staggering social and ecological costs, it might even be salutary and not just in some short-term or self-deluded sense. Right-wing climate realism then, in its simplest form, is a political-ecological scenario of the concentration, preservation, and enhancement of existing political and economic power.
Although the threat of ecologically articulated right-wing politics is quite real, has historical antecedents, and is visibly present in fringe and radical right movements in this moment, much of what might be better understood as right-wing climate realism need not be articulated as ecological at all. It can simply build from what the right has already formidably established and wishes to pursue further. This is not something we see only in the Pinkertons and other private security agencies investing in climate related protection for the wealthy, but something we can observe in tax policies that go far beyond neoliberal catechism, maximizing accumulation while disincentivizing investment of any kind. It’s not only a world in which what the International Monetary Fund (IMF) calls “phantom FDI”—foreign direct investment that goes toward no discernable investment but is rather just convenient avoidance of taxation and popular sovereignty restriction—has shot up to 31 percent of all FDI. It’s a world in which even that cannot fully explain the 40 percent of “missing profits” that are simply unaccounted for. It’s not only the U.S. military preparing for climate security scenarios and retrofits, it’s the United States’ continued investment in the world’s largest existing migrant detention, surveillance, and expulsion network. It’s not only the development of what I call “detachable infrastructures”—luxury survival architecture built not only with internal power generation and the potential for stockpiles, but to receive aerial deliveries and withstand floods or riots. It’s Amazon’s infamous patented “airborne fulfillment center” which could connect far-flung supply chains with end-use consumption by drone delivery, furthering the development of ever diverging narrow, luxury markets.
Climate change is not the apocalypse and it does not fall on all equally, or even, in at least a few senses, on everyone at all.
Taken alone, private security—particularly the Pinkertons—might seem like only an extension of a longstanding parallel system of irregular violence for the protection of capital, even if today those services are beginning to outnumber the considerable mass of formal police forces in many parts of the world. Migration policies might seem only extensions of existing ethno-nationalist policies and ideologies, even if today the ideal of right-wing ethnocracy has more purchase than it has had in decades. In isolation, privatized emergency services might just seem like one more neoliberal frontier. Phantom FDI and missing profits may just look like one further push into the freedom of capital already achieved in the neoliberal era. Over half the global profits of American-based transnational corporations are now held in opaque tax havens. When such havens began to be widely used in the aftermath of the First World War, they held a scant half a percentage point of global wealth. Today, they are at an all-time high, holding over 10 percent of global GDP. According to other sources, this could be as much as twenty-one to thirty-two trillion dollars of assets—a torrent of profit escaping popular power. One estimate indicates the United States is losing out on $70 billion a year in tax revenue through the offshoring of profit to tax havens. This can be the freedom to disappear, the freedom to “cash out”—although one does need somewhere to cash out to. If one is only looking at an economic portrait of infrastructure, this seem like the logic of finance taken to its most extreme: asset stripping of even the most necessary goods for immediate return. The creation of luxury markets for the deep-pocketed high end. Even the architecture, taken alone, might seem just a bit of prudence or caution or fear. All this is not quite what people usually have in mind when they speak of “climate barbarism.”
And for many, it is surely just these lanes or just these understandings; there is no necessity that such a politics be unified or be ideologically coherent. But understood within a larger climate portrait, this is building or at least preparing for a world that is an extension of the extractive circuit that is capitalism in the twenty-first century, working for fewer and fewer. Or one of vigilant, restrictive, hyper-nationalisms. Or even structurally “neofeudal,” a rather different “post-capitalist” vision for if and when the extractive circuit breaks. Or a world of all three. A world we can already see coming into its own in Fortress Europe or at the U.S. border and in increasingly direct and punitive post-democratic governance in places like Puerto Rico, Greece, or Flint. We can observe interstitial border states, like Turkey and Mexico, adopting the control of migrants as an emerging geopolitical lever, but for a permanent “tier” below, providing a key service for the preservation of power in a world already experiencing migration on a scale not seen since the Second World War and projected to be in the hundreds of millions in the near term.
There is tremendous evidence that people deeply invested in fundamental system preservation do consciously proceed with “business-as-usual” knowing with a reasonable degree of certainty the likely climate outcomes. I often jokingly call this the Rex Position, after Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil from 2006–2016, and Secretary of State under Donald Trump for parts of 2017–2018. Tillerson famously proclaimed “my philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money then that’s what I’ll do.” Tillerson is not a climate denier per se. He just doesn’t share the urgency of his many critics. Tillerson is more than willing to talk about a shift to renewables, but there’s no rush. People will adapt to climate change, there are “engineering” solutions. It’s only those trapped within a different temporality who think otherwise. There are many clear and bright futures for business-as-usual in the meantime. There’s a certain clarity and precision even in Tillerson’s public arguments: “Our view reflects the reality that abundant energy enables modern life.” The Rex Position is not one single positive political ideology but the convergence point of the politics of right-now for a panoply of right-wing climate realism.
The Rex Position is not shortsighted or irrational once one accepts that climate change does not “produce” a universal human subject. One does not have to construe Tillerson as “evil.” Tillerson and those he works with are not in some kind of shadowy conspiracy. The Rex Tillersons of the world have taken a look at the same data, the same trends, the same underlying social and political conditions, and they have noticed that in the probable world in which nothing changes for them, business-as-usual, they end up on the “winning” side of a sharp global and local dividing line. Every structural incentive serves to reinforce such thinking. The best outcome in such a position is to push on with business-as-usual; the costs of climate change will largely be borne by those who already bear the cost today. Indeed, as I will argue, that other people will be bearing those costs helps keep the system going as long as possible and makes the Rex Position of maximal extraction for maximal maintenance, or cashing out, that much better. Even modestly successful climate mitigation and adaptation for the vast majority of people would require socioeconomic and political changes that would pose a steep loss to the Rex Position.
There might be, among the generously minded, an inclination to see this position as deeply impoverished. Surely, the Tillersons of the world will be profoundly affected by such staggering human loss and damage, let alone the diminishment that is a part of the sixth mass extinction event in the Earth’s history, in which some 30 to 50 percent of species may be facing extinction by the mid-twenty-first century. In some meta-ethical way, such claims might register. But the systems we have inherited, the world capitalism has built, is not a world that inculcates, rewards, or gives incentives to such a mode of thought or its practical applications. If Rex himself felt that way, there are a thousand Rexes equally well-placed, able, and at-the-ready to replace him. The Rex Position represents a logic of self-interested self-preservation taken to an extreme.
Actually Existing Capitalism runs on stress and stressors, social and ecological. Ecological sustainability, a socioecological flourishing for the vast majority, for the many, requires addressing such stressors—such exhaustion—across ecological, economic, social, and political systems, otherwise the overall project is an unstable, and—in terms of maintaining a niche capable of such flourishing—unsustainable shell-game. Right-wing climate realism can seek to embrace the shell game but just choose the shells—to help, no matter what the cost, maintain capitalism in the twenty-first century.
Or worse: a gradual lateral exit from contemporary capitalism into forms of what would be more precisely termed neofeudalism. Simultaneously extending the life of our current global socioeconomic and political systems as long as possible for maximum real accumulation while “cashing out” toward more directly coercive forms of privatized rule. In this sense, against both a triumphalist liberal democratic narrative or some forms of Marxian analysis, capitalism would have been a massively costly aberration. A world-historical blip that expanded the wealth, power, and size of the ruling class and locked in a niche incompatible with the flourishing of some seven billion human beings. What so many and Marx himself rightly viewed as capitalism’s broadly dynamic gains would be largely rolled back, at least for most people. Through an ecological lens, what Thomas Piketty describes as “patrimonial capitalism” becomes a horrifyingly distorted mirror-image of the steady-state or circular economies often posited as goals in ecological literature. Wealth is held, maintained, and recirculated back to itself in close kinship networks. This is, of course, already a characteristic of the world as it is.
Neofeudalism is also a steady-state economy—one in which growth is essentially nil or close to it—but characterized not by some harmonious socially sustaining socioeconomic life. Rather, it would be one in which the rate of return on “capital” lies at its historic norms of 4 to 5 percent for a rather much larger and much more comfortable ruling class than existed in pre-modern periods across the world, coupled with the conditions for at least a handful of distinct—if almost certainly overlapping—surplus populations: First, a massive number of socioeconomically expendable people (no longer needed for the basic stable reproduction of the sated and well-off) who face direct, permanent ecological adversity. (Think about the UN’s estimate of one to two billion who may “no longer have adequate water” if the world warms by 2 degrees Celsius.) And second, an over-large body—also facing severe economic and ecological constriction—of what one might term “neoserfs”: people who work in basic production and extraction, maintenance, and non-essential service functions. In between these groups and a ruling class would be a third mass: loyal retainers, if you will. Those who perform high level services, especially governance and security.
I want to be careful with my language, as such a scenario might seem simply dystopian speculation. Or an exercise in the increasingly popular genre of climate doom-mongering. Climate change is not the apocalypse. Rather, coming to know right-wing climate realism and its worst possibilities is coming to know an enemy. To have a “clear-sighted” view of its concrete realities, its politics, and its passions allows for the possibility that we might cultivate and externalize our own.
Since climate change is universal, the assumption runs, and since we can turn to a “scientific” politics, there is really only one “climate realism.”
This possible reactionary climate realism scenario is hardly certain. It could take differing forms across differing geographies. In some places we might see neofeudal company towns as described here while in others, virulently and exclusive nationalist states; in some places, massive “sacrifice zones” as already exist around key points for the global extraction of rare earth metals; and in others, a rump state working in concert with private powers. We can have Jair Bolsonaro calling for extractive genocide; we can have the burgeoning Green-Black explicit eco-fascist political formations in Europe; or maybe just Senator Dianne Feinstein saying it all costs too much. The point is that, in some form, it is not only plausible and possible but probable. Such a world need not be characterized by some cataclysmic break with this one, nor would it be unrecognizable.
Indeed, part of what makes this such a plausible outcome is that it is another intensification of the existing world. Approximately 25 percent of the American workforce is already employed protecting wealth and surveilling other workers. This is a trend one can see in other countries; it tracks inequality. As we’ve already seen, the business-as-usual world is a radically unequal one. But the intensification of phenomena like this would be so significant as to be a qualitative shift. Such a world is not speculative fiction; it is the continuation of an existing trend.
Don’t Rock the Armed Lifeboat
Perspectives like the Rex Position are usually chalked up to corruption, greed, short-sightedness, or a host of cognitive biases. But the world projected in the vision of tiers of private protection is not shortsighted at all. If anything, the assumption that climate change is universally apocalyptic is the exemplar of cognitive confusion and blurred vision.
The argument is that whatever protections wealth and power afford will evaporate at some degree of a X scenario. Of course, there must be some ΔX at which universal effects to such an extent really do begin. But that is not what we are talking about. Most business-as-usual scenarios put the Earth on track for a Δ3–5 degree Celsius change by the end of the twenty-first century, even accounting for the possibility that feedbacks would trigger a faster rate of warming or lock in a particular pathway. Somewhere around Δ4 seems likely with current business-as-usual.
And when one wants to add the already complex ecological picture to social systems—war, resource distribution, land use—it is even more difficult. A Δ4 or Δ5 scenario by 2100 is almost certainly characterized by mass levels of direct and indirect death, rampant disease in some regions, billions experiencing food and water insecurity, vast numbers of climate refugees, resource conflict, and so on. But this is not “existential” in the mundane sense of the word; it is not extinction. As Kate Marvel reminds us, “It’s worth pointing out there is no scientific support for inevitable doom . . . there is a real continuum of futures, a continuum of possibilities.” Politically speaking, those possibilities have different weights, different logics, different existing or potential powers.
The more aggressive forms of what I have been calling right-wing climate realism are what Christian Parenti calls the “politics of the armed lifeboat.” However, Parenti deems such politics “bound to fail,” not on grounds of insufficient adaptation and mitigation or catastrophic outcomes but rather because “if climate change is allowed to destroy whole economies and nations, no amount of walls, guns, barbed wire, armed aerial drones, or permanently deployed mercenaries will be able to save one half of the planet from the other.” But this is highly uncertain, not particularly likely, and certainly not automatic.
One 2012 report tried the difficult task of synthesizing direct ecological and social systemic impacts and predicted, in terms of deaths alone, one hundred million climate deaths between the report’s publication and 2030. By then, six million people may die every year from climate change. This is a shocking number. But the same models note that the world currently experiences some 4.5 million climate deaths per year. Even granting the haziness of many climate projections—not the science per se, although climate scientists will often, rightly, urge caution that models are not perfect predictions—particularly when we move into trying to predict the complex interrelation of society and ecology into the future, something quite different is apparent when looking at the often ignored socioeconomic and climatic impacts of today and a potential tomorrow.
Thinking about current realities of economic inequality, warfare, and grinding poverty, let alone historical parallels, suggests that some version of this world, that is this global system, is far more capable of absorbing truly catastrophic climate impacts discussed in likely scenarios than many anticipate. A brief survey of colonial history shows that with even more staggering odds, and sometimes far greater access to wealth and resources than in the “bound-to-fail” scenario, there was no automatic reversal or chaotic karma for “the wretched of the Earth.”
One of the most prominent examples of an early ecological-economic-political matrix is the Bengal Famine of 1770. Consider that historical example: only a few hundred clerks, owners, and managers, and several thousand soldiers, subdued an army of fifty thousand at the Battle of Plassey to establish the rule of the British East India Company in Bengal in 1757. At that time, the size of Bengal was approximately thirty million people. By the time the East India Company captured Delhi at the beginning of the nineteenth century, its private security force had grown to some two hundred sixty thousand men (twice the size of the British military at the time) and would come to rule an entire subcontinent of over two hundred million. At the height of company rule, the force was approximately three hundred fifty thousand.
Although we all inhabit the same ecological niche, we don’t really share one climate.
This was not, of course, a benign period. And it is even one in which we can already see a set of social-ecological relations. As Mike Davis notes, “There is little evidence that rural India had ever experienced subsistence crises on the scale of the Bengal catastrophe of 1770” before company rule. Mughal India was “generally free of famine until the 1770s.” During the Bengal famine, some ten million people—or, as one British report at the time estimated, a third of the entire population—died in one of the first great “natural” disasters that was anything but. Unlike contemporary political ecology in the Anthropocene, in which humans can be causally associated with truly niche-wide ecological forces, these earlier episodes were more straightforward: new forms of capitalist imperialism transformed cyclical events like El Niño into “natural” disasters. The famine was not the result of the ecological cycles but rather of the metabolic relation between a host of company policies, especially grain export, and the ecological system.
In the Bengal famine of the late eighteenth century, such policies included both the continued promotion of cultivating land for export crops but also company-imposed taxation, exacted with extraordinary violence. Both continued even in the face of four years of ecological adversity. The next century or so of East India Company and then direct British Raj rule was nothing short of “free-market economics as a mask for colonial genocide,” similar to that of the Great Hunger in Ireland, and even in at least one case, directed by the same personnel. Millions would continue to die of famine all across the subcontinent throughout the period of British rule. Even areas where rainfall was adequate were inundated with the social spillover effects of capitalist colonization. Early “experiments” were conducted “that eerily prefigured later Nazi research on minimal human sustenance diets in concentration camps” in finding just the optimal level at which capital could simultaneously extract ecological value and still generate profit through productive activity. Just as capital will inexorably chase the lavish profitability that fossil energy provides, regardless of human cost, “grain merchants, in fact, preferred to export a record 6.4 million hundredweight of wheat to Europe in 1877-1878,” one of the periods of intense famine, “rather than relieve starvation in India.”
Up to the end, such practices continued in British-ruled India. Winston Churchill reached back to the empirically untrue Malthusian argument that famine was the result of the rampant population growth of the poor to explain what was happening in India. Indians were to blame for “breeding like rabbits,” an argument you can hear echoed today in different forms from Davos to Washington, D.C. At least three million Indians died in the Bengal Famine of 1943 as Churchill and his government insisted on policies of maximal grain extraction and stockpiling for British use. This time, there was no corresponding weather event though, no “natural famine.” It was a man-made famine, as Amartya Sen wrote in 2007. Or, in more ordinary terms, genocide.
British rule in India lasted two centuries. At their high point, colonization forces never exceeded approximately five hundred thousand across the subcontinent, ruling over three hundred million people. It is not that Indians did not revolt, strike, and fight back; they did, throughout the period of the Company and the Raj. But rather that one-fifth of 1 percent of the population were perfectly capable of withstanding these actions.
India is no isolated case either. Integration into the world market went hand in hand with new economic-ecological disasters. In the late nineteenth century, these could be witnessed not only in India but, as Davis notes, in Algeria, Egypt, Angola, Queensland, Fiji, and Samoa. The hand of Empire and the Invisible Hand replaced staple crops with cash crops; “natural” famine followed. Anti-colonial revolts and, on the other side of the world, slave revolts, rebellions, and revolutions did occur, sometimes even achieving legal and formal decolonization. The success of the Haitian Revolution at the beginning of the nineteenth century is one of the paradigmatic cases. Cedric Robinson gives half the story that is pertinent here: “In Haiti, between 1791 and 1804, slave armies managed to defeat the French, Spanish, and English militaries—the most sophisticated armies of the day,” allowing Haiti to become “the first slave society to achieve the permanent destruction of a slave system” and “to achieve formal independence.” But C.L.R. James provided the other: “If the Haitians thought that imperialism was finished with them, they were mistaken.” Haiti would be, in the colder language of the twentieth century, “contained” by the global market, subordinated in that market and by its imperialist homes, frequently besieged by blockade or direct military intervention to this day.
But there was nothing automatic about any of these processes, which lasted in many cases a century or even centuries. And even after all that time and under such conditions, few would claim that the world is “decolonized” today. If anything, it is less that the world has decolonized than that the colonial relation has become more omnipresent. Anticolonial struggles are not automatically, inevitably, or historically bound to fail. There have been many real victories achieved in the struggle for decolonization. And the politics of a left-wing climate realism is a mode of broadened anti-colonial struggle as much in the metropole as in the periphery. It is, in its simplest form, the very real, very possible adaptation and mitigation scenario for an almost utopian flourishing for the vast majority of people on Earth. Put differently, left-wing climate realism is the politics of a world relieved from social, economic, and ecological despair and exhaustion.
This is absolutely possible, pace the doom-mongers. But, in the same way, right-wing climate realism is hardly “bound to fail.” It is perfectly imaginable because the world as we know it already absorbs the scaling horrors of the Anthropocene. It is perfectly imaginable because the colonial relation has, necessarily, adapted and spread over time. It is perfectly imaginable that even a modest amount “of walls, guns, barbed wire, armed aerial drones, or permanently deployed mercenaries will be able to save one half of the planet from the other.” It’s perfectly imaginable because the world we actually know and the one we can observe through the historical record makes the “politics of the armed lifeboat” far from a bad gamble for those whose stake promises a payout.
Disunion in Stereo
As is a constant refrain in intergovernmental reports and climate science literature, it is overwhelmingly individuals in the Global South, particularly the global poor and working class, who will bear the brunt of climate change. “Over 90 percent of mortality assessed . . . occurs in developing countries only,” argues a 2012 report. That is, of course, in terms of mortality only. As already mentioned, the United States has a surprisingly large exposure to the difficulties of climate change. However, this is far more likely to be accounted for by economic and social deprivation than by sheer death. In the United States, the ensuing conflicts are less likely to be out-and-out resource wars and complete social disintegration than drastic socioeconomic degradation to those outside the top income decile. Exacerbating existing inequalities and inequities from public health to political governance itself: an intrastate version of the globalized caste system. There are certainly cases where climate changes will have extreme impacts on wealthy settler-colonial states—think of the intensified 2019–2020 Australian bushfires—but even in such cases it is the poor and the already disposed—for example, the Aboriginal populations of New South Wales, which is also where fire concentrations were the highest—who face the greatest risks. It is not simply that even in extreme cases there is no “karmic balance” or that there is an ironic, ecological cruelty. Existing inequalities and inequities increase exposure to climate impacts, even while, through exploitation, extraction, and enclosure, they are simultaneously drivers of further inequality and ecological stress. It may be that the wealthy in a place like Australia will only have recourse to escape. But, at the very least, as climate change continues to intensify, the geographical maps of the global caste system will continue to be redrawn.
Between the statistical image of the most hard hit—both internationally and within countries like the United States or Australia—as well as scenarios like the tiered protections of the Californian wildfires, climate-proof luxury construction, or more dramatic considerations of resource wars and instability—it begins to become clear that although we all inhabit the same ecological niche, we don’t really share one climate.
It is here that we can really start to see the political implications of probable outcomes between different degree changes over time. In looking at the reality of current and projected climate impacts in the near term, and how climate truly is not a universal condition, we can finally begin to piece together a more accurate, stereoscopic view of the Anthropocene as it currently stands.
The politics of a left-wing climate realism is a mode of broadened anti-colonial struggle as much in the metropole as in the periphery.
The stereoscope, invented in the nineteenth century, allows a viewer to see two images at once, one in each eye, such that the brain can perceive a three-dimensional image. Walter Benjamin introduced the idea of a stereoscopic view in his work on history, perception, and politics. One of the reasons that Benjamin is so powerful a theorist to think with ecologically—and why one finds his work in so many social scientific and humanistic texts on the Anthropocene—is that he conceived human history and natural history as a continuum. Time was geological for Benjamin: the past does not go away but accretes, layer upon layer, into the present. Historical time was “biological” even for Benjamin, not to be understood as some long chain of events but as a mere split second in the “history of all organic life.” At any given moment, one could grasp a more accurate, more meaningful view of history by replacing a static, single image, with a stereoscopic one, bringing an analytically or politically relevant “past” or layer into view that enhances our initial glance, that creates a three-dimensional portrait of the present.
If we learn how to see stereoscopically, “to educate the image-making medium within us, raising it to a more stereoscopic view,” we find not the flat tableaux of the triumphal procession that characterizes official “universal history”; instead, a true three-dimensional image of the present emerges. It is just such a view that we need to understand the political story of the Anthropocene.
In one image is a vast number of people, many already feeling and experiencing the catastrophe that even a Δ1.5–2-degree world promises. Such experiences are in no way equal, stretching from out-and-out deaths of millions, millions more as refugees, others facing chronic food and other resource shortages and attendant conflicts, and still others locked into tiered castes of misery. In the other image is a world that has not only profited from thirty years of “denial” and delays but stands to continue to reap dividends and increase the already substantial permanence of such social structures. Most climate discussion focuses, for good reasons, on how to hold to that Δ1.5–2 world, ideally the Δ1.5 goal. The immediacy and radicality of all that unprecedented socioeconomic transformation is predicated on the timescale that appertains only to the first image.
In that second image, though, there is no urgency between Δ1.5–2 and Δ3–4, or maybe even Δ5. It’s not that “adaptation is not possible” in such scenarios; it is just that it is highly restricted. And in the meantime, there is money to be made and power to be secured in heaven’s high water. The better climate plan might be for some to not just build lifeboats but protect them further still. Miami might be lost, but as one climate scientist quietly observed, off the record, that’s not the case for Manhattan, which would likely be protected by seawalls or surge barriers. Only that form of adaptation would almost certainly come at the cost of the outer lying areas of Brooklyn and southern Queens. Perhaps this might seem outlandish to some, but it is the basic logic of “the discount rate”—the mainstream macroeconomic approach to climate change—just relieved of some of its ideological distortions.
The economist William Nordhaus was widely celebrated for his “discount rate” model. To his credit, Nordhaus wanted to reattach the standard macroeconomic model to the actual, physical world, to plug it back in and account for the sources of energy, to “price in” the “externalities.” Stopping carbon emissions and bringing other environmental factors within planetary boundaries poses steep costs both in the present and even to future generations, the argument goes. Thus, “we” must be prudent in how much “we” weigh the needs of climate mitigation policy to balance present needs and present costs with future needs and future costs. The discount rate model postulates that there must be some optimal inflection point—usually to be “priced in” through a carbon tax or some form of cap-and-trade—at which future needs outweigh present benefits. A high discount rate indicates that present costs and growth needs outweigh immediate climate action in favor of future generations.
Based on this discount rate model, Nordhaus suggested a relatively high social cost of carbon that grows at 3 percent per year from approximately now till 2050. In that time, this would suggest a carbon tax starting at approximately $19 per metric ton of CO2 and topping out around $53. This is only a minute difference from his most well-known critics in the Stern Report, whose proposals would differ by as little as a few dollars per metric ton of carbon to about a $150 difference. The recent IPCC special report on staying within a 1.5 world, in contrast, suggests costs as high as $14,300 by the end of this decade. The point isn’t the comical difference between these numbers. Nor how carbon taxing and cap-and-trade systems will never work or are ludicrously inadequate measures. Nor even how the IPCC models incorporate “Negishi weights” and their consequences which, as the economist Elizabeth Stanton notes, “freeze the current distribution of income between world regions,” and without which “IAMs [integrated assessment models] that maximize global welfare would recommend an equalization of income across all regions as part of their policy advice.” But rather how the very idea of “the discount rate” is so perfectly a “victor’s” story; how wonderfully it obfuscates reality. There is no universal “we” whose present benefits are being maximized. Profits, rather, are maximized for the few at extraordinary socioeconomic and ecological costs to the vast majority. Climate change does not negatively affect only prospective “future” generations but is already exacting costs from most people currently alive while benefiting a rather smaller number immensely.
Nordhaus advocated, as increasingly “mainstream” and even “liberal” voices are normalizing today, a Δ3.5 world, right in the middle of the business-as-usual range. This is well in line with many of the right-wing climate realism scenarios we’ve explored. This is the Rex Position. Although so seemingly technical or distant from the kind of theoretical ideas Benjamin was exploring in the late 1930s, the discount rate turns out to be an exquisite illustration of Benjamin’s arguments about time, history, and power. Just as “we” are all the beneficiaries of growth, as the dominant story goes, “we” are all better off with a high discount rate. The idea that some universal “we” is better off not only in a Δ3.5 world but along that trajectory belies literally everything we’ve learned about current ecological realities, let alone projected ones. The idea that profit maximization actually benefits “everyone” belies a world of stark and growing inequality. Whether it promises doom, salvation, or even just modest improvements, the universal story truly does serve only the powerful.
Here we can finally see diverging “climates,” diverging interests, and even diverging times. While it is not the case that everyone will die in the next ten to twenty years or even longer (indeed, as we’ve seen the threat of human extinction is not really plausible at all at least outside of truly distant projections having little to do with anthropogenic climate change), it is the case that for billions of people and even majorities in Global North countries that they have strong interests in immediate and radical transformation. This is expressed; this is felt although not necessarily, yet, as a climate politics. At the same time there are those who have no rush at all. This is not about people’s moral character per se but actually just a straightforward comparison of structural interests. Nordhaus is, in a weird way, right; it’s not worth the trillions of dollars of losses or the trillions of dollars of costs to mitigate so quickly. It’s that he’s only right for one of those images, for one small set of people with inordinately large amounts of power. When we look stereoscopically, we can see the full three-dimensional image not of single pathways but of two diametrically opposed worlds, where even ecology does not unite all people. Simply put, we’re not all in this together.
Ajay Singh Chaudhary is the executive director of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research and a core faculty member specializing in social and political theory. Ajay is currently working on a book of political theory for the Anthropocene. He has written for the Guardian, n+1, Los Angeles Review of Books, among others.