During the discussion I criticised Latour strongly, based on an interview he had, together with the late Ulrich Beck, given to the FAZ. I have now come across a paper by Latour, based on a talk he gave in Vancouver in September 2013. In this paper he develops his idea about a climate war and his distaste for the notion of 'climate change' in greater detail.
While reading this paper it occurred to me that maybe some of his intended meaning was lost in translation when speaking the FAZ journalists. To remind you, the most explosive parts of that interview had to do with his use of the concept of war when talking about the climate debate.
In the Vancouver talk he develops the thought in more detail. He offers this observation:
Let me start with the notion of “conflicts”. I think it is fair to say that on all the questions I will deal with tonight, we are divided. Not only are we divided among different parties, different factions, religions, ideologies; but also, and maybe more deeply, each of us is divided inside ourselves. I certainly feel such division. Indeed, it is to this place of internal conflict that I look for the courage to address you tonight.
Latour puts his weight behind the IPCC but acts as a climatosceptic at the same time:
Even though I decided to align myself behind the I.P.C.C. report (not the same thing as “believing” in it), I feel very much that I am a skeptic since I don’t know what to do about it, apart from a few pathetic gestures like sorting my rubbish and limiting my carbon footprint (and feeling guilty about it). I act as a climatosceptic, or rather, because of this state of relative indecision, I share with those people an attitude that represents most of the developed world right now (including Canada, to the great disappointment of Europeans…), and one that could be called climato-quietism (quietism in theology being a laid-back attitude that somehow, without doing anything much, God will take care of our salvation).
We get the idea that it is not easy to take a well defined position in the climate debate.
The point I want to introduce here is that when people turn to nature or speak about nature or invoke natural laws, they are never really “at war” with anybody — whatever crimes they may commit. Of course they meet people who disagree, but those are not technically — legally — their enemies, they are simply more or less irrational people, more or less enlightened persons, more or less educated parties, more or less archaic or backward members of exotic cultures. And this “peaceful” attitude is as common to those who say: “Of course we live at the period of the anthropocene, it is proven, only reactionary nitwits may still doubt it” as those who say: “Of course anthropocene is a fantasy pushed by misguided fanatics, Cassandra scientists and apocalyptic sects.” In both cases they might be able to fight fiercely but still they are not at war since the overall question has been decided elsewhere, above the parties, by Science, by Reason, by God, by Providence, by the Tribunal of History, by the movement of Modernity, it does not matter which. If you believe this, then, at heart, no matter how combative you feel, you are a peace-maker engaged in the task of merely disciplining the remaining morons.
Do you feel the difference? When you engage in a police operation, you act in the name of a higher authority that has already settled the conflict and you merely play the role of an instrument of punishment. But when you are at war, it is only through the throes of the encounters that the authority you have or don’t have will be decided depending whether you win or lose.
Latour concludes that it is either police or politics that is open to us as a strategy in the climate debate. Note that the notion of war has gone in this formula, and it was introduced maybe only to provoke, or to emphasize the importance of Carl Schmitt's insights about the antagonistic nature of politics.
But in drawing the distinction between policing and politicking Latour touches upon an important question. The IPCC and its public defenders and followers are caught in between these two approaches. On the one hand, it is a matter of policing and silencing the 'unconvinced'. The facts are clear ('The science is settled'). No discussion is needed, only education or excommunication. On the other hand, the facts and their meaning presented by the IPCC are commented and interpreted (often by the same people). For example, we hear that the IPCC is too conservative, or that new research has already superseded findings from the last report, etc. ('It is worse than we thought'). In so doing the discussants enter the fray, without being able to use the authority of the IPCC as a discussion stopper.
This oscillation between appeal to authority while at the same time combatting 'the enemy' in the climate change debate is something I have noted. I agree with Latour on this point and with his diagnosis while I have still reservations about the use of war metaphors in describing the situation. Yes, the debate is polarised. But this is not a good thing in itself (and not given by nature, or by Carl Schmitt) but an obstacle to the productive development of effective climate policies, a point which Latour loses sight of in his (otherwise quite illuminating) talk.
In this talk Latour gives a more nuanced picture about the choices one makes when speaking about climate change, it is no longer a simple 'we are at war!' He acknowledges the he (and we) are often divided within ourselves. However, he still loves this stark binary distinction between war and peace, where a more nuanced picture would be useful to advance the debate. This is ironic for an author who spent so much energy tearing down binary distinctions (as those between nature and society, or between science and culture).