Re-Thinking Climate Change

I.

There has never been a wider gap in America between the environmentalist discourse of climate change and the political discourse of our President and Congress. Donald Trump seems to be undoing virtually all of President Obama’s executive actions to curb greenhouse emissions and protect the environment, notably Obama’s signature effort to reign in emissions from coal-fired power plants. These repeals are short-term political wins for Trump but they also have serious repercussions for the global consensus over our warming planet. The Paris Climate Agreement aims to hold global rises in temperature to 2° Celsius, the absolute maximum allowable unless we want to face a slew of natural catastrophes, from sea-level rise to superstorms, desertification to mass species extinction. To be clear, many of these disasters will happen anyway (or are already happening), but the 2° cap functions as an arbitrary limitation—a bridge between warnings from the scientific community and the realities of international politics.

Given Donald Trump’s rollback of the Obama climate doctrine, the United States will fall short of its self-imposed goal of 26-28% emissions reductions by the year 2025 (compared with 2005 levels).[1] This calls the entire Paris Agreement into question, as the United States is the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gas after China. Beyond directly affecting greenhouse gas emissions, US pullout from the accord will have many indirect consequences. Smaller and poorer nations, who have not contributed nearly as much to the problem of climate change, will be far less willing to be part of the solution if the United States shows no interest in sacrificing as well. We are thus in a situation of rupture between the scientific community, the environmental movement, and the international community on the one side, and the US political system on the other. What scientists and activists tell us needs to be done, our leaders are not doing. Not only that, but US leaders—Republicans in Congress and the White House—are opposed to even acknowledging a problem exists, preferring to reap short-term political and financial profit while leaving questions of the future off the table.

Given the obvious disconnect between activists and the scientific community on the one hand—who believe climate change is a real and present danger—and climate change deniers on the other, some clear thinking is needed about the relationship between people, the environment, and the causes of global warming. We already know the answer to the question, “Why is the climate changing?” Though effects of climate change are interrelated and complex, their ultimate cause is the inexorable release of certain gasses into our atmosphere through the combustion of fossil fuels. Energy lies at the heart of the world economy and is so knitted into the fabric of our lives that it is hard to imagine life without it. Burning fossil fuels creates energy that we use to spin turbines, drive pistons, heat homes, cook food, synthesize materials—generally to do everything which makes modern society possible. We know that releasing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere traps more of the sun’s energy, raising average global temperatures and leading to a series of complex and ultimately disastrous sub-effects. I argue that today’s climate activists and intellectuals focus mostly on the effects of burning fossil fuels, taking the cause for granted. But to think about climate change in its totality requires something different than a laundry list of effects, be they disastrous or perversely beneficial. Instead, one must begin to think climate change as cause, which means questioning the environmentalist thesis that burning fossil fuels is the root of all evil. Only by wrestling with the cause of climate change can we hope to understand it, and whether any solution is indeed possible.

II.

Bill McKibben’s 2012 piece in Rolling Stone is a powerful example of how climate activists think. Titled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” the article analyzes scientific research to make a moral argument about the fossil fuel industry. McKibben identifies three numeric thresholds that are crucial to grasping the dynamics of global warming. The first, which I have already mentioned, is the 2° Celsius threshold. Scientists characterize this figure as the maximum temperature increase that human society can sustain. But as the author shows us, this figure’s roots are actually political, not scientific. The 2° threshold was first proposed at a meeting in the 1990’s chaired by Angela Merkel, now Germany’s chancellor and Europe’s most powerful leader. Since then, the figure has functioned as a basis for consensus-building at international summits. Both in Copenhagen and more recently in Paris, the international community affirmed that global warming must not be allowed to exceed 2° Celsius. This abstract threshold has become a political symbol—the basis upon which countries ratified the Paris Agreement and are devising plans to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. McKibben is critical of the figure. He quotes James Hanson, a NASA scientist, who says that “two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster.” Other scientists echo this sentiment, which raises a troubling point: in accepting 2° Celsius as the absolute limit for global temperature rise, is the international community simply ratifying an impending catastrophe? What meaning can the threshold have if it does not guarantee us that the worst consequences of global warming will be avoided? And furthermore, is the 2° figure a legitimate basis for political action, given that such an increase in temperatures will have cataclysmic and unpredictable effects? While McKibben flirts with these concerns, he ultimately shelves them in the name of global consensus. If 2° is all we can agree on, then we have no choice but to use the figure, however misguided it may be, in the name of averting an even more unimaginable disaster.

McKibben’s second two figures are interrelated: 565 gigatons and 2,795 gigatons. The latter is an estimate of the amount of greenhouse gasses that would be emitted if proven fossil fuel reserves were extracted and burned. In other words, the figure estimates the global capacity to emit greenhouse gasses through the burning of fossil fuels. It is important to note that “proven reserves” is a technical term denoting reserves with a high likelihood of being extracted. As technology for extraction improves and conventional reserves continue to decline, the definition of a proven reserve will surely expand. The first figure, 565 gigatons, estimates the maximum amount of greenhouse gasses that could be released into the atmosphere in order to hold warming to 2° Celsius. McKibben’s point is that the numbers do not match: 565 is only one fifth of 2,795, meaning that fully four-fifths of proven carbon reserves must stay in the ground to prevent a global rise in temperature of more than 2° Celsius.[2] The figures have a certain clarity to them: 565 gigatons is a concrete measurement; so is 2,795 gigatons. Though they are estimates, these numbers allow us to perceive that our current rate of consuming fossil fuel is incompatible with our desire to constrain temperature rise. Not only do we have the capacity to raise temperatures by more than 2° Celsius, we are doing it right now, with no sign of abating.

These numbers are illustrations of the future. McKibben builds his analysis on the consensus threshold of 2° Celsius, showing us what it would take to prevent global temperatures from rising above this level. The stark difference between 565 and 2,795 gigatons evokes a near-apocalyptic urgency. Unless our consumption of fossil fuels changes radically, and quite soon, the world as we know it is over. But the gap between 565 and 2,795 gigatons is not as concrete as McKibben would like it to be. Yes, both of these numbers are derived from complex models built upon decades of actual measurements. They are based on statistical calculations that can determine the likelihood of certain events happening, in this case the chance that a certain amount of emissions reduction correlates with a particular rise in temperature. But these calculations are also based upon the 2° threshold itself, which McKibben admits is arbitrary. As he puts it, “political realism bested scientific data.” Moreover, the consequences of burning fossil fuels are largely unpredictable, despite the continuous improvement of models, and this is because they are complex and interrelated.

For example, as greenhouse gasses trap heat in the atmosphere, arctic ice melts. This melting then becomes a secondary cause of warming—decreasing the amount of ice that reflects some of the sun’s rays back up into space. To take another example, rainforests are cut down around the world and their timber harvested. Deforestation decreases the amount of carbon that forests can sequester from the atmosphere. Deforested land is often used for carbon-intensive farming or livestock grazing, which releases gasses such as carbon dioxide and methane into the air—turning a carbon-storing ecosystem into a carbon-releasing one. Systems such as these, in which one cause has many interwoven effects, counter-causes, and secondary effects, are quite difficult to predict. Indeed, perhaps the only thing scientists can predict is their unpredictability—we do not know what a 2° Celsius rise in temperature will do to the environment, to cities, island nations, human health, or our economic system.

McKibben’s point is that we do not want to know. After identifying his three numbers and how they are related, McKibben draws out the consequences of global warming’s “terrifying new math.” In order to hold rises in global temperature to below 2° Celsius, four-fifths of known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground.[3] Who owns these reserves? Who plans to extract them and profit off their use? The answer is fossil fuel companies, which McKibben points out are some of the wealthiest and most powerful entities on the planet. Perversely, as conventional oil reserves begin to run out, these companies stand to make more money, not less, because demand for fossil fuels shows no sign of slowing (especially in developing nations). A rise in temperature above 2° Celsius means disaster, and these companies own the carbon reserves that can ensure such a rise. Thus, the fossil fuel industry holds the key to human survival in its pocket. And instead of unlocking the door to survival, fossil fuel companies have tossed the key away, preferring to reap tremendous profits without taking responsibility for the consequences. McKibben then advances a moral argument. If these companies can choose between life or death for humanity, and if they are choosing death, then they are the enemy. Everything possible should be done to pressure them into keeping their reserves below-ground (this is the origin of McKibben’s 350.org movement). Fossil fuel companies, not governments or technology or consumers, are the main culprits of climate change, because they have the power to prevent it but choose otherwise. This is a powerful argument, and it translates smoothly into a political program: pressure the fossil fuel industry to keep their reserves underground; organize politically in order to hold the global community to its 2° Celsius commitment.

III.

All political movements need an enemy. The environmental movement has found one about as good as it gets in the fossil fuel industry. These companies are greedy, ruthless, corrupt, violent, insanely rich, and hell-bent on extracting every last dollar of profit and ounce of combustible material from the earth while denying climate change altogether (or else minimizing its significance). I want to question, however, whether the fossil fuel industry really is the enemy of the environmental movement, or whether the “culprit” of climate change is more difficult to define. This means questioning the central tenet of McKibben’s analysis, the 2° Celsius figure. For his analysis to hold up—as well as the political conclusions drawn from it—McKibben must accept the 2° figure at face value. In other words, he must accept that holding global average temperatures to a 2° Celsius increase is the fundamental goal of the environmental movement. We have touched on reasons why this threshold is troubling. An increase in average temperatures of this magnitude will have unpredictable effects. It could mean the submerging of major coastal cities, the deaths of tens of thousands of people, the relocation of millions.

What is the point of having a limit if it does not deter the worst from happening? It could always be worse, goes the reply. Still, in accepting the 2° threshold, even with a measure of skepticism, we are resigning ourselves and our children and grandchildren to a world of perpetual crisis. I think McKibben is correct when he says that we are probably too late to meet the temperature threshold. Even if we are not, there is little chance of an international consensus emerging in the next decade that would include mandatory emissions reductions and a meaningful enforcement mechanism. This was not even possible under the Obama presidency. Incentives do exist for nations to reduce their emissions and switch to renewable energy sources, but no country can afford to sacrifice the necessary amount unless all countries do—a bedeviling political calculus.

There are additional structural factors, beyond international politics, that call the 2° figure into question. McKibben hints at this when he discusses proven fossil fuel reserves. He points out in the article that “proven” does not simply mean the reserves exist under the ground. These reserves are already part of the economy—written into loan agreements and the portfolios of investors, generating value on balance sheets. Keeping them in the ground would cause an economic catastrophe, a bubble-burst on par with the 2008 financial collapse, or even worse. Thus, tremendous institutional forces are mobilized towards the extraction and burning of these reserves. From the standpoint of the ruling class, crossing the 2° threshold is a fait accompli.

Even this observation—that fossil fuel reserves are part of the existing economy—does not get to the heart of the matter. What is the economy? Why can’t we change it to make fossil fuels less valuable and therefore easier to keep underground? The answer has to do with capitalism, and the particular relationship it structures between human beings and the natural world. John Bellamy Foster explores these ideas in an essay titled, “Marx’s Grundrisse and the Ecological Contradictions of Capitalism.”[4] The essay is invaluable for thinking through the limitations of today’s environmental movement, as well as the contradictions between capitalism and nature—whose symptom is global warming. Foster is concerned with ecological destruction, and he leverages Marx’s writing to place the topic in an economic context. Marx’s analysis of nature is actually highly complex; he does not distinguish between man and nature as separate entities. Instead,

Nature is man’s inorganic body—that is, insofar as it is not itself a human body. Man lives on nature—mean[ing] that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.[5]

As Foster goes on to articulate, Marx does not conceive of either human nature or natural history as static. Instead, both nature and human society undergo change together. But whereas human beings once had a “natural” and sustainable relationship with nature, mediated through living off the land, capitalism forces a total alienation of human beings from their natural conditions of survival. Local and communal arrangements give way to the universalism of capitalism and modern industry, which draws rural populations into cities and skews the relationship between city and countryside. This movement has sweeping consequences for nature and human society. Once an end in-itself, nature “becomes purely an object for mankind,” to be exploited for the production of commodities.[6] Thus soil erosion, deforestation, pollution, and (though Marx did not know it at the time) global warming are all effects of capitalism upon nature. The profound contradiction of capitalism is that this exploitation of the environment, coupled with the exploitation of workers, is part of a universalizing development. Millions of people are lifted out of poverty, technology improves the standard of living, and the exchange of commodities knits the world together into a global network.

This brings us back to McKibben and the 2° Celsius threshold. While McKibben notes, almost in passing, that proven reserves of fossil fuels are already part of the economy, Foster explains why. It has to do with the logic of capital, which not only externalizes nature as a useful object, but externalizes use-value in the pursuit of exchange-value. Marx defines capital as self-aggrandizing value; money which creates more money.[7] Capitalism is revolutionary not only because of its history, but because of its unique structure. Earlier forms of society predicated the exchange of goods and services on human needs. In other words, the limited scope of human needs limited the exchange of commodities. Capitalism is revolutionary in that commodities are produced to realize a profit, not to satisfy needs. The pursuit of profit becomes a special need, an “unquenchable desire for abstract commodity wealth.”[8]  Foster links this unquenchable desire with the “drive/craving” inherent in commodity production. No fixed amount of profit will ever satisfy the capitalist, precisely because exchange-value is quantitative; it has no natural end point.

Drawing on Hegel’s Science of Logic, Marx observes how capital turns every limit to its own expansion into a mere barrier to be overcome. Capital overcomes religious, technological, political, social, natural, even physical limits on its profit-making. In every new crisis or temporary setback, it sees only a frontier where more profit can be made.[9] In Marx’s analysis, the passage from use-value to exchange-value (from useful goods to commodities) opens up a hole within our economic structure. Human labor, because it both produces use-value and is itself a commodity, is the double term or symptom of capitalism. Out of the hole of human labor, capital extracts surplus-value, value realized over and above the cost of producing a commodity. Marx maintains that the drive toward profit is capitalism’s defining feature. Pursuit of profit is structural: limitless and unconscious. Going back to McKibben’s analysis, it is not simply that fossil fuel reserves are already part of the economy as use-values, goods which satisfy human needs. Rather they are also exchange-values, potential sources of profit. As long as there is demand for these commodities, staggering profits can be made. This should serve as a rejoinder to McKibben, who hopes that a political movement can pressure the fossil fuel industry to keep their reserves underground within the frame of global capitalism. In fact, the stakes are much higher, none other than a political struggle over capital itself, whose blind drive cannot recognize or assign meaning to the ecological threat posed by climate change.

IV

Because human society is fundamentally dependent on nature (what Marx calls our “inorganic body”), some barriers cannot be overcome. Even if capital overcomes a barrier ideally, “it does not by any means follow that it has really overcome it, and since every such barrier contradicts [capital’s] character, its production moves in contradictions which are constantly overcome but just as constantly posited.”[10] Climate change would seem to be the prime example of a barrier capital has overcome only in imagination, and not in the real world.[11] This is visible precisely in the warnings we receive from people like Bill McKibben or those in the scientific community that human society is headed toward an unimaginable catastrophe. I think the possibility of total environmental destruction is one Marx could not have imagined. He asserts that capital overcomes every challenge posed to it, but what about the possibility of its dissolution? I argue that this possibility marks the absolute limit of capital’s logic, and thus the point where our faith in the capitalist system should end.

If capital cannot rescue itself from nature-imposed limits, what can? Where should we look for a solution to climate change?  This question is not an easy one to answer. The solution of the mainstream environmental movement—holding global warming to 2° Celsius—is flawed for several reasons. It is geopolitically unfeasible, because each country stands to lose out unless all countries adopt emissions reduction programs. More fundamentally, the 2° limit is not compatible with the logic of capital. So long as there is demand for fossil fuels, nations and corporations will have no choice but to extract and burn them, or risk losing out to competitors. Even if a few institutions band together and reject fossil fuels, this will not erase their value within the global economy. The key question is not whether energy companies should or should not extract fossil fuels. Instead the question is: where does the demand for fossil fuels come from?

Let us imagine that in the next few years the ecological movement sparks a worldwide revolution, democratizing production and giving people control over their economic destinies. What policies should such a movement pursue in order to mitigate the worst effects of climate change? The proposal by mainstream environmentalists to limit global warming to a fixed amount would probably be implemented. To do so, burning fossil fuels would have to be made illegal—the vast majority of current and future reserves would lose their value and remain underground. This proposal, perceived as moderate today, would, if enacted, be the height of extremism. The energy resources to replace existing fossil fuel reserves simply do not exist and will not exist for many years given the limited scope of renewable power.

It is difficult to imagine the end of capitalism. But it is far harder to envision a world without fossil fuels. Marx describes the relationship between human beings and nature as “metabolic,” using an analogy from biology. But perhaps we should read him quite literally: metabolism is defined as the chemical processes occurring within an organism to sustain its life. Human life is, today, shot-through with the social relations of capital and the cultural accumulation of civilization. In other words, we no longer live as natural beings, but as social ones, within a system of language and symbolic exchange. Yet we cannot escape the metabolic base of this existence—the transfer of energy due to chemical reactions. Since the discovery of steam-power, and later the internal combustion engine, civilization’s development has proceeded according to our ability to harvest the energy released through combusting hydrocarbons, the organic compounds found in fossil fuels. The majority of the world’s population is dependent on this chemical process, whether to power cars, trucks, tractors, airplanes, refrigerators, computers, lights, or stoves, to manufacture clothing, plastic, cellphones, buildings, or books, to pump water, provide heat, run businesses, and broadcast radio waves. In short, the fossil fuel industry is not the enemy, however much they deserve to be. The enemy is modern life itself, knotted tightly to the release of energy responsible for climate change.

My point is that meeting the 2° threshold is not just politically and economically difficult. In truth, things are much more serious: meeting the threshold is incompatible with modernity. Modernity has its critics of course, and there are many within the environmental movement and the Left (generally) who do not view its preservation as worthwhile. Some hardline environmentalists envision a return to pre-modernity through a return to the land. They want to reconstruct, to paraphrase Marx, a sort of natural communism of the type that spontaneously existed early in human history, before the advent of nation-states. Many hard-leftists, by contrast, wish to bypass modernity all together, for they see in it nothing other than the universality of exploitation, poverty, misery, and violence which Marx so adeptly critiqued. Their vision is not a return to the past, but skipping ahead to the future, either through great technological leaps, a worldwide political revolution, or both. For them, modernity is a curse to be broken. Both of these positions, eco-primitivism and the hard-leftism, miss something of Marx’s critique of capitalism—precisely his refusal to sacrifice the real gains of modernity, however unequally they are distributed, for a return to pre-capitalist or pre-modern social formations. Marx is at pains to recognize the gain that capitalism represents over pre-capitalism:

Thus capital creates the bourgeois society, and the universal appropriation of nature as well as of the social bond itself by the members of society. Hence the great civilizing influence of capital; its production of a stage of society in comparison to which all earlier ones appear as mere local developments of humanity and as nature-idolatry.[12]

Elsewhere, writing about the English colonization of India, Marx captures the profound tension between capitalism and the social formations it replaces:

Now, sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness those myriads of industrious patriarchal and inoffensive social organizations disorganized and dissolved into their units, thrown into a sea of woes, and their individual members losing at the same time their ancient form of civilization, and their hereditary means of subsistence, we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies.[13]

Marx is no lover of capitalism or European imperialism. And yet he refuses to go backward. However perverse and violent, capitalism does represent an advance over village life, in which the individual has little possibility of breaking out of his or her hereditary inheritance. These quotations from Marx are a rebuke to those hoping to return to pre-capitalist society or else leapfrog into a new world: the former position discounts personal freedom while the latter is a fantasy without technological or political basis. Even if a revolution against capitalism were achieved, the problem of burning fossil fuels would not go away. Capitalism’s universalizing and civilizing functions, the ones Marx wishes to preserve on the road to communism, are inseparable from our metabolic relationship with nature, the extraction of energy and release of greenhouse gasses. This admission should be, I argue, the first thesis of a humanist environmental movement.

V

Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary defines two types of metabolism, constructive and destructive: “constructive metabolism, the synthesis of the proteins, carbohydrates, and fats that form tissue and store energy, and destructive metabolism, the breakdown of complex substances and the consequent production of energy and waste matter.” It is clear that human society’s current relationship with nature, in a very literal sense, is destructive. Our system of production is built upon the extraction of hydrocarbons, remnants of living organisms whose energy has remained trapped underground for millions of years. We break these substances down through burning them (perhaps the most primitive and important chemical reaction humankind has mastered), harnessing the energy released to power engines. These engines perform the useful tasks of civilization, but at a cost: the release of waste matter, which enters the atmosphere trapping the sun’s rays and warming the planet. It seems that nature is imposing a real boundary here, even if capitalism views it merely as another barrier to be overcome. There is no energy had for free, no metabolic destruction without the production of waste, and thus no modernity without global warming. Perhaps constructive metabolic processes could be discovered to balance our current destructive use of nature. The ability to create and store, not merely expend, hydrocarbons is already done through planting trees. But I do not think any solutions exist to match the scope of today’s problem: how to preserve the gains of modernity, the “civilizing influences” of capitalism, while overcoming the natural limit of climate change. We are in a profound deadlock here, one which implicates our relationship with nature. If the first step of a humanist environmentalism is admitting the necessity of fossil fuels, the next step, I argue, is to assert that we do not have any solutions. Only from this position of absolute honesty might a way forward be illuminated.

***

Notes

[1] At the time I am writing this, Trump has threatened to remove the United States from all obligations under the Paris Agreement. This will not be legally possible until 2020 but is practically possible right now.

[2] Duncan Clark disputes these numbers in a 2015 article published by The Guardian. Clark highlights that McKibben’s numbers are based on specific assumptions about risk and mitigation, and that they are already out of date. While changing assumptions and finding ways to compensate for carbon emissions can swing estimates one way or the other, Clark’s numbers are still basically the same as McKibben’s: an 850 gigaton threshold, with the clock continuously ticking down towards apocalypse.   

[3] Clark’s numbers are slightly different, but not enough to affect my overall argument.

[4] J.B. Foster, “Marx’s Grundrisse and the Ecological Contradictions of Capitalism,” originally published in Karl Marx’s Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy One Hundred and Fifty Years Later, ed. Marcello Musto, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

[5] Marx quoted in Foster, p. 96.

[6] Marx quoted in Foster, p. 101.

[7] I define capitalism, by contrast, as an economic and political system built upon the realization of profits.

[8] Foster, p. 98.

Within capitalism, this desire is structural, not individual. Even if a particular capitalist is satisfied with his amount of profit, market competition will force him out. Today’s equivalent is the publicly traded corporation, contractually obligated to provide ever-increasing returns to a mass of anonymous investors.

[9] A vivid example of this is the melting of the polar ice caps. Even though this poses a tremendous threat to native peoples, endangered species, and coastal cities and islands threatened with sea-level rise, nations are negotiating over the right to extract even more fossil fuels from areas that were previously inaccessible due to ice. Where environmentalists see a tragedy, corporations see also the potential for greater profits.

[10] Marx quoted in Foster, p. 101.

[11] This thesis would be a good place to begin an investigation of climate change denialism, which is a much more insidious ideology than liberals would like to believe.

[12] Marx quoted in Foster, p. 101.

[13] Karl Marx, “The British Rule in India” (1853), published electronically at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1853/06/25.htm.

A prime illustration of Marx’s point is the conflict today in India over the role of women in society. Economic opportunities draw women from villages to cities, yet cultural stigma and other pressures often force women to return home. This tension between village and city, repression and personal freedom, is precisely what Marx has in mind when critiquing pre-capitalist society.

See Ellen Barry, “Young Rural Women in India Chase Big-City Dreams,” https://nyti.ms/2k5gxkP.