Climate Apocalypse Vs. Liberal Utopianism: The Arguments For and Against the End of the World

by Nicholas Beuret

12 July 2017

Joshua Stevens / NASA Marshall / Flickr

“Yes, obviously, absent any real action to reduce emissions we’re fucked. BUT: That is not going to happen. The actually realistic danger zone is a combination of too little decarbonization, too late, in the context of hardening inequalities of class, race, and gender” – Daniel Aldana Cohen

The past few days there has been a lot of arguing about the end of the world. There have been a series of arguments and rebuttals around a recent New York Magazine piece that sets out how the planet is basically fucked and life will become nasty, brutish and short over the next century.

The denunciations of the piece all basically condemn the piece as inaccurate and paralyzing. But for all their condemnation, even the pieces contesting the NYM article all still agree that climate change is a grave threat to human civilization. What they say is that ‘overstating the facts’ and ‘preaching doom’ are counter-productive. There are two sets of claims here worth unpacking politically: what the facts are and what fear does.

The facts of climate change are not entirely straightforward. That’s because a lot of the force of the facts of climate change derive from them being not-yet facts: they are claims about the future, or what will happen if things go on as they are. Climate science is a complex field, one that covers a lot of different kinds of scientific practices (from testing gas bubbles in ice cores to running complex computer simulations). While climate change is a fact – i.e. something that explains what we know about world – the explanatory power of this fact is contested. For the most part the contestation of the facts is understood to be a ‘science vs. the denial industry’ sort of conflict, and while this is in part true there is also a lot of debate over the kinds of likely futures climate change will produce.

In other words, the debate isn’t only about whether or not climate change exists, it’s also about how bad it will be. While a lot of this comes down to variations in the predictions of modeling and a conservative tendency within published scientific accounts, a lot of it also comes down to socio-economic and political assumptions.

Climate modeling involves a kind of technocratic sociology: social, economic and political factors are put into models as though it was a game of Sims or Civilization. This makes for a political tendency within climate science and environmentalism towards population-level thinking. Put another way, people using models as a basis for making policy and political calls tend to ‘see like a state’. Politics tends to resolve itself to this sort of scale (the globe or at the very least the nation) and takes on a managerial approach to problems, as though the solution is to be found in how things are run, governed and managed. As a result there is either an undue emphasis on government policies or, when governments fail to act ‘in line with the science’, a tendency to Mad Max scenarios, like in the NYM piece.

Politically this comes down to whether or not you have hope in governments to act. On the one hand you have what I’d call liberal utopianism, or a hope in the possibility of rational government and active citizenship solving the problem of global socio-economic change. It is the hope that the ideals of progressive liberalism are not only still realizable, but are the solution to the problem of climate change. On the other hand you have fatalism. At times this can express itself as a radical kind of fatalism, where catastrophe brings about social change (think transition towns). What both responses have in common is a total lack of faith in people acting autonomously from some kind of global agent (be it the state or catastrophe).

Now there is no one-way to narrate the facts of climate change. It may seem there is, but that ignores the role social and economic assumptions play in how those facts are both constructed and narrated. Climate scientist Michael Mann criticized the scientific basis of a couple of the facts (but far from all) in the NYM piece (the debate over the claims of the NYM were called ‘quibbles’ in the New Republic). But even if we just accept the quibbles and use Mann’s own graphs and take up the reasonably widespread assumption among climate scientists that what is currently likely given existing government policies, socio-economic tendencies and, well, the climate, is a 4C future, that is still pretty grim.

There was some work on this back in 2010 (since when predictions and expectations have gotten for the most part grimmer still). Mann’s timeline would see 4C by around 2100, and what it would mean generally speaking is:

“Drought and desertification would be widespread … There would be a need to shift agricultural cropping to new areas, impinging on [wild] ecosystems. Large-scale adaptation to sea-level rise would be necessary. Human and natural systems would be subject to increasing levels of agricultural pests and diseases, and increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events… This world would also rapidly be losing its ecosystem services, owing to large losses in biodiversity, forests, coastal wetlands, mangroves and saltmarshes [and] an acidified and potentially dysfunctional marine ecosystem. In such a 4C world, the limits for human adaptation are likely to be exceeded in many parts of the world.” (Rachel Warren, University of East Anglia)

This is not even excessively alarmist in terms of scientific papers out there (see Kevin Anderson’s work in particular). Add to this the various projects documenting how scientists feel about their work and what will happen to the world, and it becomes clear that even though some of the claims of the NYM piece are contestable, the ‘science’ of climate change paints a pretty depressing picture of our likely future.

That is, if ‘governments don’t act’.

Now a lot of the responses to the NYM, as well as a bunch of other articles out there on climate change, suggest that either the market (‘witness the surge in renewables capacity!’) or some kind of technofix (i.e. geoengineering) will fix the problem. Mann has heavily criticized geoengineering as a false solution, and the idea that the market will fix it is beyond ludicrous. However what both have in common with liberal utopianism is how they rely on some actor other than people. And this is where we get to the question of fear.

Going all the way back to the quote I opened with, one of the reasons the NYM has elicited such a strong response is that scientists and campaigners, by and large, think making people afraid will mean they become unable to act on climate change. Fear and doom-mongering are counter-posed to the kind of political mass mobilization campaigners like Bill McKibben call for. What’s needed, instead, is a kind of ‘professional optimism’ that means even when reading up on what a 4C world will look like, even when assessing the successive failures of governments to act, or on how industry funds campaigns to weaken climate policies or deny climate change is even happening, that one has to publicly remain confident that action can still be taken.

This is the utopian bit of liberal utopianism.

It speaks to a debate with environmentalism. On the one hand environmentalism has always used images of doom to prevent doom. On the other, with climate change in particular there is the idea that too much fear has the opposite effect. Instead of moving people to act – to safeguard their futures – it produces a kind of fatalism and will make things worse.

The problem with the latter argument is that it’s not people in general who are fatalistic but scientists and environmentalists.

By and large, from what we can gather from various public polls, while people believe in climate change as a fact they don’t think it will either be as bad as is often claimed or they think the worst effects will happen somewhere else. Which is to say people are probably not scared enough to take it more seriously as something that will affect them.

There is an interesting contrast here with racism and xenophobia in Europe. In this instance fear really mobilizes people. From the rise of the alt-right to Brexit and Marine Le Pen, when people are afraid of migrants they act. Historically fear is a powerful political tool, one that not only enables the production of a ‘people’ but can also move them to act in collective ways (from neoliberal fear-mongering around terrorism and dole scroungers to Soviet wartime mobilizations against the Nazis). This is the thinking behind the climate change doom brigade.

Fear is used politically to make social collectives. Insiders and outsides, sets of values and beliefs, borders and territories. Fear of migration creates national identities, and is currently being used to shore up neoliberal regimes around the world, as has been done for decades. What would fear of climate change do? What would it actually produce? These are far from settled questions.

This is where the implied politics of climate activism comes in. It’s said that when people are afraid of climate change they become fatalistic and passive. It’s said people need to have some possible solutions set out for them lest they give up hope. All the solutions that get attached to journalism or writing around climate change tend to come in two varieties however: changing the light bulbs or specific government policies. So it comes down to either individual action or government action. And I’d suggest that if we want to understand why scientists and environmentalists are afraid of climate fear, then I think we’d be better off starting with how the facts have been constituted rather than focus on what it means when people are confronted with worst-case climate scenarios.

If the only solutions to the facts of climate change – realistic solutions, because no one actually believes some kind of global catastrophe can be fixed by not over-filling the kettle – are governmental solutions, then what people need hope for isn’t that there are solutions but that governments will act. If you don’t think governments will act then you can either have faith in a fix like The Market or Technology, or you become cynical and fatalistic.

Scientists and environmentalists are afraid of fear because the actor built into climate thinking as the only actor capable of solving climate change has done sweet fuck-all about solving climate change, and is unlikely to without massive social pressure. This is because governments are not neutral rational actors of the kind that fulfil liberal fantasies of responsive states which seek to ensure social rights and reconcile different social, cultural and moral agendas. That is the core of the liberal utopian fantasy. In actuality, states are machines for organizing the accumulation of wealth and power by a small ruling class. States are part of the problem.

The unacknowledged heart of the debate around fear is the state. It’s a question of whether or not we can have faith in the state to act on climate change. Beneath this is a lack of faith in people to act autonomously, both because the facts of climate change call for a global actor and because, well, people have so far been a bit disappointing on environmental questions. Deep down many people calling for action on climate change think people don’t really want to make do with less, or give up their cars and international flights or smart phones.

There are other solutions to climate change, and other ways of constituting the facts. The day the NYM circulated online another account of climate change was published claiming that 100 companies were responsible for 71% of global emissions. Looking at it this way undoes some of the alliance between ‘technology and economics’ that produces liberal utopianism and its fatalistic variants. Starting from here means the facts look different. Emissions aren’t global, and they aren’t a product of humanity: emissions become industrial pollutants, produced by a small number of corporations. Being afraid of what these 100 companies are doing to your health, the world in which you live and your future is a very different thing to being afraid of a problem whose only solution is government action.

People can take on a corporation, but who can really believe in government anymore? The question of the end of the world isn’t so much about the apocalypse. In the end it comes back to the question of our own autonomy. Without political autonomy, and perhaps more importantly without some way of imagining our lives apart from the state and from capital and a vision of life that doesn’t require government action or corporate facilitation, then there isn’t any possibility of imagining the future after the end of the world.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.