Wallace-Wells’ confronting and daunting climate piece ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ begins by saying “it is much worse than you think”. Following this evocative jolt Wallace-Wells threads a thorough run down of the catastrophic risks posed by climate change. The piece has attracted much attention and praise for its sobering look at the dire consequences of runaway climate change. The reaction from the scientific community however has been more mixed, including criticism from the distinguished climate scientist Michael Mann who was interviewed by Wallace-Wells. Climate scientists such as Mann have mostly criticised the piece for its ‘doomist’ approach, for what they see as overstating the likelihood of certain risks. Mann wrote in response:
But there is also a danger in overstating the science in a way that presents the problem as unsolvable, and feeds a sense of doom, inevitability and hopelessness.
Other scientists agreed, arguing that an overly apocalyptic and bleak account of the risks posed by climate change would be counterproductive to addressing climate change. This would in turn also became contentious as Vox writer David Roberts pushed back against the ‘doomist’ criticism and argued that fear is a psychologically necessary prod for climate.
These controversies over whether the scientific risks are overstated or not and whether they are psychologically helpful or not are both missing the point. The biggest problem with Wallace-Wells’ piece was the political framing of climate change, not the scientific. The reason the piece is so ‘doomist’ is not because of how it presents the science of climate change but how it elides its political economy.
Wallace-Wells adopts an Anthropocene framework for understanding climate issues and this framework has been rightfully criticised by the likes of J.W Moore, Andreas Malm and Naomi Klein for depoliticising environmental issues. Wallace-Wells lends credence to the definition of Anthropocene as:
A name given to the geologic era we live in now, and a way to signal that it is a new era, defined on the wall chart of deep history by human intervention.
This definition emphasises the unprecedented consequences of human activity on the Earth’s ecosystems. The proponents of this definition advocate that it denotes responsibility towards nature and will elevate the importance of environmental issue and accord them the political attention they deserve.
By treating humanity as one homogenous unit, however, it flattens the stratification of society, accords blame equally and hollows out the politics from environmental issues. Instead of elevating the responsibility towards the environment, it reproduces the ontological separation of humans and nature, itself a Western idea which has throughout history justified rampant exploitation of nature.
Wallace-Wells’ piece excises the political dimension and causes of the climate change crisis and no wonder then that it trends towards ‘doomism’ when it instead blames humanity as a whole. The Anthropocene framework becomes a quasi-mythical story where an abstract Anthropos, like a Promethean figure toying with fire, has brought ruin onto itself with coal and steam.
An account of climate change which excises the political dimension erases questions of distribution, elides a historical enquiry of how the dimensions of class and imperialism drove and continue to drive carbon emissions and does not diagnose the problem. And without the problem we cannot possibly see the solution, and without solutions there is naturally only doom, gloom and misanthropy.
Treating humanity as a homogenous and undifferentiated whole leads to dangerous and reactionary conclusions. It leads to all too familiar and troubling strains of Malthusianism. Right on cue a few days later the Guardian reported a study forwarding having fewer children as the best possible climate change response. As Malm points out, however, energy consumption is hugely unequal:
The 19 million inhabitants of New York State alone consume more energy than the 900 million inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa
The Anthropocene framework posits that there is human-driven environmental change which is necessary to admit in the first order. It however then elides the equally necessary discussion of the inter-relations of human society. The ontological framework of the Anthropocene, sidestepping this dimension, then treats humanity as the sum of its parts. This then naturally leads to the misanthropic conclusion of the necessity of having less parts.
Wallace-Wells thankfully does not advocate this, however his piece likewise reflects the ontological separation of humanity and nature. It is us, the homogenous and equally responsible us, who have “engineered …a climate system that will go to war with us for many centuries, perhaps until it destroys us”. Again, the war theme continues as Wallace-Wells describes the climate as a “war machine” which “each day we arm it more”.
This oppositional framework of us versus the planet adopted by Wallace-Wells is meant to frighten us but is not conducive to climate change action. It leads to blaming the powerless, when we need to instead examine the structures of power responsible.
Climate change is a fundamentally political crisis, not scientific or technological. After all we know the science, and have long now known it, and we have the technological alternatives to transition away from greenhouse gas emissions. As a recent study has shown, since 1988 just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of these emissions, greatly complicating any unitary frames of humanity being to blame. The protests over the Dakota Access oil pipeline likewise highlight the highly unequal distribution of both gains and losses from fossil fuel use. As this example demonstrates, the decisions for fossil fuel extraction are made in a socially and politically contested space and that this space is highly stratified.
Climate change is political because of these stratifications and disparities in power. The skewed distribution of power in our society has created a democratic deficit where environmental issues are ignored for the benefit of the few despite their known clear threat to most. The issue of climate change is at its core an issue of political marginalisation and governed by questions of distribution.
Wallace Wells’ piece, however telling, only mentions dangerously fantastical geo-engineering and exactly zero political solutions. Wallace-Wells tries to end on an optimistic note, placing confidence in humanity, again as an abstract and single unit, to solve issues through ingenuity:
Nevertheless, by and large, the scientists have an enormous confidence in the ingenuity of humans — a confidence perhaps bolstered by their appreciation for climate change, which is, after all, a human invention, too. They point to the Apollo project, the hole in the ozone we patched in the 1980s, the passing of the fear of mutually assured destruction. Now we’ve found a way to engineer our own doomsday, and surely we will find a way to engineer our way out of it, one way or another.
But this again reflects his ‘apolitical’ Anthropocene frame and delegates climate change solutions to the scientific community and not political deliberation. The passing of the Mutually Assured Destruction threat was not down to a collective humanity, or some technical engineering but concerted social pressure for nuclear disarmament. Geo-engineering too is an odd fantasy as it clearly carries more unknown, potentially catastrophic risks. Entirely sidestepping the question of how to transition to a carbon free economy, geo-engineering hopes instead wait for a technological solution to resolve any political problem.
These hopes fantasise that natural barriers and feedback loops of our ecosystems can be amended to our will, while political institutions are naturalised above scrutiny. Economic laws then are natural and universal while ecological inter-actions are transient and subservient to human will. Geo-engineering reflects a particularly modern neoliberal predicament where it is easier to imagine that the greenhouse gas effect can be overturned than to imagine a redistribution of power and wealth that challenges the interests of capital.
Finally, I do not want to be too harsh on the piece itself. The criticism here is of the Anthropocene framework and the purportedly apolitical stance it takes. There is however a time and place for raising the scientific threats posed by climate change as Wallace-Wells did. They are mind-numbing in their scope. Wallace-Wells signposted intention was to point out the negative tail-end risks, e.g. the low-likelihood but catastrophic events. As he argues:
It just so happens that people seem much less aware of those sort of [negative-end] tail risks than they are of the positive-end tail risks, which are namely that life will continue much like it is now.
Too often the scientific threats posed by climate change are in fact presented in an incremental and sterile manner. The discussion of rising sea levels is a good example, which presented by itself comes loaded with ceteris paribus assumptions; that life otherwise operates the same for humanity. This does not in itself seem daunting or accurately present the scope and danger of climate change inaction. Pointing out the opposite does have merit: the changes posed by climate change are holistic, and given the complexity of the Earth’s ecosystems and their thresholds, uncertainty is not our friend.
Climate change is anthropogenic – we need to acknowledge the interaction of human activity and its effects on our environment to advance climate action. To deal with climate change we also need to acknowledge the inter-actions in human society, not treat it as a collective agent. The Anthropocene framework highlights the relationship of human activity and environmental consequences, but obscures the social inter-relations which drive human activity. If ‘business as usual’ is not sustainable, then it is worth examining the political economy of why said ‘business as usual’ persists; who gains materially, who loses.
Without the discussion of the political economy of the climate crisis there will not appear to have a way out. It is this absence of the political which leads to the ‘doomism’ in Wallace-Wells’ piece. We don’t need apocalyptic navel gazing or other psychological tricks to shock us into action. A list of scientific threats from climate change, no matter how thorough, do not in themselves point to a solution. As Kate Aronoff points out, politics of fear and crisis can even play into the hands of the Right as per Naomi Klein’s theory of the ‘shock doctrine’.
Instead, political alternatives are needed. The Left needs to mobilise around climate change as a material and political issue. It is a crisis of myopic markets, of capitalism crushing democracy, of current political marginalisation and future material dispossession already manifesting before our eyes.
Paul Hamel | Aug 23 1717
Sorry, but did I miss a couple decades or something. I fail to understand how anyone could suggest that there has been a “passing of the Mutually Assured Destruction threat…” There are still 7000 in Russia, 6800 in the US, 300 in France, etc. Last time I checked, the US (at minimum) was still at Launch on Warning status with its apocalyptic arsenal. One possibility is that the author is referring to current status of the nuclear arsenal in the US as possibly having a first strike capability against all adversaries (see the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists) wherein MAD is (potentially) no longer relevant.
If this is what we are pinning our hopes on as a “successful” change in human behaviour in order to alter the course of climate change, I am not particularly encouraged.