Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Climate utopia

This sounds a bit like a New Year’s resolution and the impression is not altogether wrong. Thinking about the narrative of climate change, and the project to prevent dangerous warming of the planet, it occurred to me many times that it is lacking in vision but excels in warnings, exhortations, and polarization.
The script of the narrative belongs to the age-old apocalyptic genre and the exhortation draws on the implicit understanding (at least in a Judeo-Christian tradition) that we must stop sinning and alter our ways. This narrative is deeply embedded in the Western culture from where it originates, both the biblical account and the modern climate change discourse. It probably was such a convenient storyline that little thought was dedicated to the logic of the story itself and its wider implications.

By this I do not mean to suggest we should re-examine the Book of Revelation in the New Testament. Rather, my suggestion is to reflect upon the dystopian character of this narrative and to imagine how a utopian narrative might look like.

My guiding principle is the structure of social utopias which by and large center around universally accepted values such as freedom and equality. Social utopias emphasize these values and try to maximize them, either in isolation from each other, or in tandem, thus accounting for trade-offs between them.

In the climate narrative freedom and equality occupy opposite positions with clearly assigned roles: usually freedom is the problematic bit and equality the thing we need to increase. Entrepreneurial freedom has produced the problem in the first place, historically, through modern industrial capitalism and its perpetuation on a global scale. Equality among countries is lacking and needs to be pursued. Because of past GHG emissions from rich industrialized countries developing countries should be allowed to emit more, for some time, but not the rich West.

This consensus has led to a deadlock at the level of UN negotiations with no solution on the horizon. The consensus will be obsolete when fast developing countries will tip the balance and account for most emissions, not only today’s, but accumulated. Note that developing countries call upon the same principle of entrepreneurial freedom when staking their claims.

These thoughts relate to mitigation strategies. But what about adaptation and remediation?

With regard to adaptation, countries have different resources to deal with the challenges of adaptation (flooding, draughts, storms, diseases). At present (i.e. COP 18) there is a consensus emerging that rich countries should pay poorer countries for adaptation measures (tacitly assuming that extreme adverse events can be attributed to climate change). This consensus builds on existing policies of international aid and extends their role and remit. It is problematic not only because it elusive to perform such attributions but also in that it treats poor countries as needy and not able to deal with challenges by themselves.  Again, as with mitigation, historical guilt is the guiding principle for mitigation policies.

So let’s examine retribution. This is commonly known by the term geo-engineering as it tries to remedy the fact that we have put too much GHGs into the atmosphere. Geo-engineering holds the promise the take out excessive GHGs from the atmosphere, no matter when these were released. In theory, this is to say in a climate utopia, we could reduce GHG concentrations at will.

Several questions arise about the politics and ethics of such a utopian project. I will limit myself to the problems of fair distribution and access to a benign climate. How could we envisage such a climate utopia?

I am not aware of any visible attempts to conceptualize such a utopia. I have heard about visions for regional and local communities but they remain crucially embedded in a world economy and society based on current carbon energy systems and technologies.

In analogy to social utopias, I assume that people in a climate utopia would strive to get more of the basic values at stake. What are they? In climate utopia, these values have to do with achieving a stable, pleasant climate. Of course, this is difficult to define. My hunch is that most people in most countries will have a notion of what their ideal climate would be. Few would say that violent storms or persistent draughts would be part of their utopia. Clearly not everyone would agree to live in a temperature regime of 15-25 degrees Celsius  (daytime) but many might. Less rain, less heat, less frost are common utopian wishes. But people think they are unrealistic because we know that climate cannot be changed at will.

With the emergence of new geo-engineering technologies mankind will be put in a position to manipulate the global thermostat at will. Could we conceive of a discourse and global institutions which provide an agreement on how to set the thermostat? The simple answer is: we will have to.

Imagine the availability of widespread affordable carbon capture technologies. They would pose no second order risk such as acidification of the seas (as is the case with injection of aerosol particles). Some countries might install them, in the hope to mitigate global GHG levels in order to prevent dangerous warming. They would do so because carbon intensive energy systems are still operating and global concentrations are too high. Other countries might resist, as they perceive the benefits from additional warming too tempting. Much depends on the trust people have in the climate models which equate global GHG concentrations to global average temperatures and regional impacts.

But what if these carbon capture devices are so efficient that they are able to do more than just offsetting the GHG emissions? In other words, what if such a technology provides the tools for a global cooling trend? How could we agree on a target for an ideal global mean temperature?

These questions may seem remote and speculative. In fact, they may appear so far fetched that no thought should be given to them today. I think this would be a mistake. Global mitigation policies suffer from a lack of practicality and global mitigation policies are set to follow in the same track. As geo-engineering projects become viable we need to think about the positive values which underpin the climate change discourse. Once we realize how negative the current discourse is, how dystopian it approaches our common future, we need to think about what a positive vision could be like. Not in the sense of a concrete and detailed future but in the sense of the guiding principles of such a global society.

But maybe I am totally wrong and the Zeitgeist has no appetite for utopias. The rise of climate dystopias could be a signifier of such a state of affairs. After the demise of the last big social utopia in 1989 and after, utopias seem to be out. Arguably, religions have filled the void and more then 80% of the world population belong to one. Many of these are other-worldly, imagining a utopia in the afterlife. Those which are inner-worldly, such as Protestantism, have focused on the aspects of sinning and personal virtue. As a secular utopia, the climate narrative so far has little to offer.


arcticio said...

I think in human history utopia always was another (geographic) place. The vision of a better future behind the horizon or on the other side of the ocean pushed homo sapiens 'out of Africa', fueled the migration period and pays the search for Earth-like planets. Now we are stuck and need to find an inspiring vision in-time and in-situ. However, there have been a few times when the lack of resources let people successfully change their society instead of moving to a new environment. Even today human rights are still a very powerful narrative. May be all needed to spark a movement is Marie Antoinette saying: "Let them eat iPhones."

skepteco said...

Interesting discussion. You might be interested in this radio program in which one "moderate" Christian seems to imply that an apocalypse brought on by god would be preferable to a climate apocalypse- because the latter has no vision of what would come after. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01phf89

Paul Matthews said...

Regarding climate change utopia/dystopia it is interesting to look at the attitude of climate scientists to warming before the current hysteria took hold.

A key paper "The artificial production of carbon dioxide and its influence on temperature" was published by G S Callendar in 1938. It suggests warming of about 1 degree for doubling of CO2. The conclusion states

"In conclusion it may be said that the combustion of fossil fuel .. is likely to prove beneficial to mankind in several ways, besides the provision of heat and power. For instance the above mentioned small increases of mean temperature would be important at the northern margin of cultivation, and the growth of favourably situated plants is directly proportional to the carbon dioxide pressure. In any case the return of the deadly glaciers should be delayed indefinitely."

Anonymous said...

Isn't a 'global' utopia by necessity a local dystopia?

Stefan said...

To be honest, all things considered, I would say that the last three or four decades in western and northern European countries, in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and a few other territories were as close to old dreams of "Utopia" as any place could possibly be. Same was true for most folks in the US between the 60s and nineties. Unfortunately the improvement does not continue forever, certainly not when it requires perpetual economic growth. Complex systems feature overshoot and downfall. Resonance catastrophe and collapse. That's, quite simply, a fact. And ignoring "Late lessons form Early warnings (the title of an enlightening EU Report) is, well, silly. Warnings come before visions. And as Michio Kaku informed me (not that it was new to me) when I once interviewed him: "Humans only move under the impression of great shock. That's our nature." In other words: we are stupid. We just love to hold on to the cozy status quo. Lack of visions? There seem to be plenty of them. But how realistic are they? How realistic can a single vision be for a complex world of 7+ billion that has entered the anthropocene? Marx attempted one such vision and it already collapses because it seemingly applies to another planet with another dominating species - certainly NOT for really existing humans of our time. Freeman Dyson warned that any system that is to work has to assume that all humans are crooks. I'd say potential crooks. Only 5 or 10% really are crooks (5% fully fledged psychopaths). The remainder are merely lazy, a bit greedy, mainly concerned about feeling good and having things and impressing their neighbors and a hell of a lot of people devoutly believe in things and ideas that, quite simply don't exist (and some of them get so infuriated about those non-existing things that they even go about and KILL each other!). Any uniting vision for this bunch please? Many attempts were made. Some of them resulted in wide spread belief in things that don't exist...and the aforementioned related fighting and killing.

RainerS said...

Well, this is an example positive "thinking" Climate Utopia in what used to be East Germany:


The vid was uploaded by Umweltbundesamt (Fedaral Env. Agency).

Reiner Grundmann said...

Stefan #5

You sound like a misanthropist: people are stupid and violent, not the right material for a Utopia.

Others think there are too many of them. A recent example is David Attenborough, the UK's most loved TV presenter

I wonder if the love for nature (and animals) is proportionate to the contempt for humans.

RainerS said...

@Reiner Grundmann, #7

Ben Pile takes a closer look at Attenborough´s stand along the lines of your last sentence here:


I wonder why we don´t "work" with what we got: Humans as they are. Or rather let them Humans work it out for themselves.

ob said...

@reiner #7

That's the second time I read a comment from you from January 22 in which you write of misanthropy. I am not sure I can agree with either the "label" or the implicit (?) decrying of such a position.

That is "misanthropy does not necessarily equate with an inhumane attitude towards humanity".

Reiner Grundmann said...


which label would you suggest?