The day after tomorrow


The day after tomorrow Making progress on climate change

Mark hoffman

In November 2006 over six thousand officials from 180 countries, along with representatives from international business and labour movements, NGOs and faith groups, schoolchildren and a host of other observers, gathered in Kenya for two weeks of discussion. They were there to attend the Twelfth Annual Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Second Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol. Chauffeured from the airport, through the vast slums that constitute much of the countryʼs urban landscape, and sequestered in Nairobiʼs tree-lined UN compound, they came, ostensibly, to agree current and future actions to meet the overall objective of the convention: to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions and prevent dangerous climate change. That is, they met apparently to avoid catastrophe.

This catastrophe has several names – salinity valves, carbon pumps, methane outbursts, glacial retreats, deep water formation – together signifying the collapse of the material basis for life itself. The breakthrough that climate observers, NGOs and at least some delegates wanted to see most is agreement on an international treaty to take over from the Kyoto Protocol in 2012. The European Union, in particular, has called for warming not to rise more than two degrees above preindustrial levels, representing about 400–450 parts per million (ppm) of greenhouse gases to non-greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. [1] If this can be done then everybody can apparently rest easy: a few extra hurricanes, a couple of submerged islands, some odd weather events, but overall an environment the rich can get richer in, the poor supposedly become less poor.

After hours of discussion, silent and exhausted, rows of impassive middle-aged men and women with coffee-stained grey hands clapped the final smack of the gavel that sounded the end of the conference. And achieved an agreement to carry on talking.

The political process to agree what needs to be done is frozen. Such paralysis has a particular poignancy, for at stake in this process – the earthʼs climate – is what should, by definition, be common to the totality of any imagined global community. Indeed, for some, it is this aspect of climate change that has been seen to offer a certain perverse form of political hope, as a phenomenon that, observable and empirical as it is, also possesses some inherently transcendental force of appeal. Certainly, the ultimate horizon of the earth as condition of possibility for human existence itself (at least for the present) takes the visible threat of climate change into a different realm than just another example of the many in history that constitute the so-called ʻtragedy of the commonsʼ. [2] If Kant once thought that the global form of the earth itself offered hope for ʻperpetual peaceʼ, today, from the perspective of current planetary transformations in its ecology, the earth appears as something like an apocalyptic pure sum. Emissions circulate equally throughout the system. With global warming it precisely makes no difference where greenhouse gases are emitted.

Uncommon interests

The paralysis in reaching a multilateral agreement at the UN partly results from, and is itself a result of, a rich–poor divide in the way national interests are distributed at the UN. Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), countries (or so-called ʻPartiesʼ) are divided between Annex 1 (OECD Developed) and non-Annex 1 (OECD Developing) nations. The Kyoto Protocol enshrines this division by giving targets to Annex 1 Parties only, though countries can of course refuse, as did the United States. Developing countries pushed hard for this divide between Annex 1 and non-Annex 1 when the UNFCC was being negotiated in the late 1980s, finally winning the linguistic formulation that is central to the approach: Parties have ʻcommon but differentiated responsibilitiesʼ for tackling climate change. This reflects a general understanding of the developing world as subjects of historical injustice in the following terms:

1. ^ It was the Westʼs industrial revolution, massively expanding the need for energy, and met by the forces of production available at the time for colonial adventures and capital accumulation, which injected huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere in the first place. This argument concerning the Westʼs ʻhistorical responsibilityʼ for dangerous levels of greenhouse gases means the burden for reducing emissions and taking on targets should fall and remain on the rich nations of the world for the foreseeable future. 2. The historically produced poverty of many non-Annex 1 Parties, as well as many of their peopleʼs close proximity to ʻnatureʼ – be it in subsistence farming, or in terms of basic infrastructure and welfare – means they will be the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. As such, it is the Westʼs responsibility to help them both to develop as quickly as possible, by not constraining their growth through targets, and to pay for urgent ʻadaptation projectsʼ. 3. The lack of development of so-called developing countries means their mitigation potential is proportionally tiny. (Such a difference is even starker when based on per capita emissions: the average US citizen creates 73 times more emitted tonnes of carbon than someone in Kenya. [3] ) Thus, carbon constraints on non-Annex 1 Parties are taken to be essentially futile. 4. It is the view of many non-Annex 1 Parties that already rich nations want them to take on targets because they in fact wish to constrain their future growth. The fact that China and India are non-Annex 1 Parties suggests how strong the possible accuracy of these suspicions might be.

Put together this means that non-Annex 1 Parties will vigorously resist any agreement at the UN that means they have to take on targets to cut emissions, that obliges them to use resources on activities that could be spent on their economic and industrial development, or even that says they must work collaboratively on technology development that would provide the basis for them taking on targets or mitigation efforts in the future. Yet the intractable problem, and unfortunate truth, is that the near doubling of global emissions in the next fifty years will almost all come from those Parties who are in principle excluded from emission reduction targets. China, with a current level of capital investment beyond anything seen in human history, is adding to its own total every two and a half years the equivalent of the UKʼs total emissions.

The problem is compounded by the political space of the UN itself, where progress is worked through negotiating blocs of supposed mutual interest, namely the EU, G77 and China, and the Umbrella Group (containing the USA, Australia and Japan). In fact these blocs often disguise considerable conflict, and shared economic and political interests are as likely to exist between blocs as lie within them. The European Union is generally content with the notion of ʻhistorical responsibilityʼ, and more or less accepts (for now) that the burden should fall on the rich. In effect, this means that they are broadly comfortable with a ʻmixed economyʼ approach of governments setting targets and letting the free market adjust prices to deliver the desired outcome. Nonetheless there is considerable variation of opinion within the EU itself. So-called post-industrial ʻknowledge economiesʼ have an advantage in decoupling emissions and growth (while having one eye set on the future growth of environmental technology markets), but new member states like Poland still have a large energy-intensive manufacturing base. It is clear that the ʻunityʼ of the EU will be severely tested as talks on a post-2012 international framework go forward over the next two years – especially if the signs are not good from the USA, China or India. Meanwhile, the USA doesnʼt like the Annex 1/nonAnnex 1 divide at all. They are impatient with any talk of historical responsibility and not particularly sympathetic to talk of equity when it comes to per capita emissions.

Business is business and government either clears a path or gets out of the way. Setting caps on emissions is one thing – apparently still too much given their refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol – but doing it while your biggest competitor, China, is excused on principle is entirely another. Australia makes a similar argument, as does Japan.

The impact of divided interests is most obvious in the Group of 77 countries and China, a bloc that includes, for example, both Saudi Arabia and Tuvalu. The Saudis do not want the rich or emerging economies to stop buying oil, and so it is of course in their interest to undermine any action to reduce the global use of fossil fuels. Some 10,000 Tuvaluans living on nine extremely low-lying coral atolls are in immediate danger of slipping under rising sea levels. Yet Tuvalu is expected to align its interests with Saudi Arabia and other big economies. At the same time, common interests across blocs also create opposition and paralysis. The USA and India agree they donʼt want targets. But each needs the other to reject action. If the USA gives way and takes on targets the pressure on India will be massively increased. Similarly, if India gives way, the pressure on the sole superpower, at least ethically, will also be substantial. There has to be endless discussion of this type within the UNFCCC as a whole to ensure that the whole does not move at all. Bright-faced and enthusiastic officials biannually get together and rehearse the same arguments as if articulating and hearing them for the first time. If these are the games that typically paralyse and freeze action in the political space of the UN, there are, nonetheless, wider problems pulling the strings that animate these antics, yet which remain largely in the shadows.

Development and the left

At the heart of the difficulties for contemporary political imagination that climate change engenders is the fact that it presents itself as a limit point of overcapitalization yet seems to confirm no progressive narrative beyond it. Human ʻfreedomʼ and the ʻpursuit of happinessʼ within the liberal economic, planned economic or redistributive traditions has historically tended, in practice, to require massive overproduction, while, in principle, being expected to develop as part of a broadening constituency of consumers. From each of these perspectives, any project to halt global warming can thus easily seem to be anti-development, or even anti-modern, per se. The forces of production may have advanced such that human want can be potentially eliminated. Yet it is also true that if every Indianʼs consumption changed overnight to match an Americanʼs, the embedded high carbon production within that consumption would lead to such an enormous release of greenhouse gases that the Greenland ice sheet would melt in weeks and flood large parts of the globe. This is the basic foothold for arguments by straightforward anti-technology, green isolationists. At the same time, on the part of much of the traditional Left, the problems produced by climate change are all too often merely evaded, in so far as they can seem to generate very little basis for established forms of social criticism. Itʼs apparently very hard to make anything politically positive, revolutionary, or even genuinely progressive out of it. Greenhouse gases may be an ʻexternalityʼ of economic production, but they can seem to have little to do with ʻsocial relationsʼ per se. Debate has instead been dominated by issues of technological transformation and the switch to ʻnew economiesʼ – justifiable anxieties which have led trade unions in many parts of Europe to campaign against any action for fear of job losses. More broadly, the very bleakness of global warming as a natural-historical phenomenon seems to fix the future and thus further undermine an already thinning contemporary sense of any possibility of some unknowable future to come that could resist the currently emergent global capitalist system.

This of course goes hand in hand with the increasingly prophetic power of technoscience, and the destiny of an embedded and expanding consumer society fuelled by enormous energy consumption. Climate change may serve to emphasise, in new ways, the ʻunnaturalnessʼ of capitalism, against its own ideological claims. But whether it could in itself provide the impetus for some more novel and effective critique of capitalism or global inequality is at present far less clear.

Of course liberal economists are not shy about staking their own claim on the future and are determined to re-present global warming as an essentially economic issue. Sir Nicholas Sternʼs recent report on climate change asserts that global warming amounts to ʻmarket failure on the greatest scale the world has seenʼ. [4] But what is thus needed is an appeal to the market to make the market work better. Economists and business are simply required to ʻreflect realityʼ, rethink cost–benefit models, and give the market cause to avert any future tragedy of the commons; industry must cost economic activity by including future costs of environmental degradation, as well as costs of living labour, and so on. In this way certain activities that are high in emissions will become prohibitively expensive or would have to accrue enough benefit in the present to be justifiable. Popular with Stern, as a tool to incorporate the external costs of climate change into economic activity, is of course the Kyoto mechanism of emissions trading – a supposedly happy marriage of government intervention and the free market.

Governments put a price on carbon through the setting of emissions caps and tradable permits that are bought and sold in a carbon market. The price, depending on the supply and demand of permits, will reflect the severity of the caps imposed by governments on those industries most responsible for emissions. But this depends, in turn, on the cuts that either the regional – as in the European Union ETS, the only trading system that is currently fully operational – or international community is actually prepared to impose. In a post-2012 agreement these will supposedly reflect what are thought to be dangerous levels of climate change for future generations; or, in the language of discounted economics, the value that future generations will place on a stable climate. Stern argues strongly that future generations will value their security as much as we do, therefore increasing how ʻweʼ should assess the present costs of damaging it (an argument that economists usually ignore because of an underlying assumption of discounting: the future may not happen). However, he also presumes that in so far as in the future ʻweʼ will be richer – where ʻweʼ means the aggregate totality of society – so current assessments of costs can be reduced, allowing ʻusʼ to reduce the severity of the cuts that are needed to ensure benefits outweigh costs. The problem, as ʻweʼ all know, is that the market alone is just not that interested in the future. The UK is currently having trouble with a lack of gas storage and is trying to get European partners to help with its security of supply. The reason Britain doesnʼt have gas storage? The market didnʼt invest in it while the country had gas coming in from the North Sea, even though it was known that supplies were running down.

This resistance to and exclusion of the future is a more general characteristic of discussions at the UN and an essential cause of paralysis. One can see this in the position that Africa is made to adopt. Africa doesnʼt have a voice – even in Nairobi – and is generally positioned as ʻthey whom we weep for, whom we act on behalf ofʼ when ʻweʼ want to secure our interests. Like the urban homeless, itʼs not that nobody sees them; itʼs that all they can do all day is look. The standard, and obviously justified, African complaint of being ignored in the political space of the UN is the discomfort of being excluded from dynamic engagement. It means being condemned to be onlookers. And, placed outside the stand-off between the USA, the EU and India/China, Africa can indeed only look on. Yet, for Africa, the catastrophe is already happening. As discussions at the UN have to exclude the future (while being about nothing other than the future) in order to maintain paralysis, so Africa must be either excluded from the negotiating ring or determined as a warning of a possible future for all of us. But itʼs far from clear what ʻweʼ can learn from Africa when ʻweʼ are all determined to avoid becoming ʻAfricanʼ.

Re-presenting history

Climate change ʻinsidersʼ know much of this, and try to stage the release of political moments to move things along. In Montreal, at the previous Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC, there was a film shown on the opening morning to a packed house of delegates. A parody of the sweetness of nature, it showed tribal people living close to the earth, before moving on to the devastation that is invisible and outside our door:

the blasted heath, the racking winds, melting ice. Finally, Inuit children appeared on stage and sang, before begging delegates to work hard in the next two weeks to save their world before it turns to slush. Row after row of bent heads were of course to be observed sobbing.

Political subjectivity not only believes art can change hearts, it also believes that hearts can direct, transform and focus political will. Yet the political reality is that the future doesnʼt vote and lacks potential for investors. Political will in the international space of the UN and other global forums has to be built, coldly, rationally, across many different constituencies. It is work for a Weberian modern world – cold, slow, unforgiving. Shrouded in darkness, hidden, buried in the present – this is where business happens, where discussions about global energy security take place. Current forms of ʻbehind the scenesʼ engagement thus only work ultimately to endorse and strengthen the fact that, in Adornoʼs words, ʻproduction is for profit and people are planned in as consumers from the startʼ. [5] Today, the gathering NGO response on personal responsibility is coming back into fashion after a decade of focusing on the role of government and business to change the economic base, with sophisticated tools and standards to create low carbon consumption. In many ways this is another ideology of consumer power mitigating objective levels of exploitation, but, worse than this, its chatter is being used to nurture neo-mercantilist energy security fears. At the same time, from another perspective, some argue that because Africa will be hardest hit by climate change then action is even more pressing and urgent today. (This is an argument that seems to have had some impact upon Gordon Brown for one.) Yet the shallowness of this argument from guilt is all too obvious. For why would guilt about the future be any more powerful to effect change than guilt about the present? Arguments that rely on a tactic of ʻon behalf of othersʼ simply repeat the impotence that the many are destined for. They become a reflection of the domination of nature for the sake of overcapitalization that passively accepts damage to the earthʼs fundamental systems in exchange for the wealth of the few. Poverty and inequality are the true indicators of a global society organized around economic profit. Positioning climate change as the greatest problem of today can easily act as a cruel reduction of the suffering of those who live with poverty now. Far better would be to make explicit those links between the accumulation of wealth for the few and ecological destruction itself.

Anxiety about the future, and the judgement it makes, could perhaps offer one new way to configure the political response that is needed. Itʼs the future that writes the history books youʼre going to be in. And it causes fear that people donʼt quite know what to do with: ʻAm I really the bad guy in this film?ʼ If there is a political opportunity here it is to be found in the fear of catastrophe that, like any suspense narrative, starts to open up the present to the sign of things to come. History has now permeated nature, colonized it, turned it inside out. Rather than just reducing, boiling, cutting, digging, burning it, history has now possessed nature by giving it an end, a telos. This was not supposed to happen: capitalism, infinitely resourced and resourceful, should move through a natural and ʻopen spaceʼ that is infinitely divisible. Instead ʻtransient natureʼ is now nature possessed, its future fixed in the present through model scenarios of hurricanes, floods, and so on – a telos that is about the survival of humanity itself. Is climate change, then, a typical disaster narrative, in which ʻweʼ discover our predicament on the verge of catastrophe, and have just enough time to change; a test of humanity to be resolute, good, and make the right decision, and in which a moment of redemption is offered? Yet perhaps itʼs not only greenhouse gases that have permeated nature, but also these narratives of disaster that scientists (ʻourʼ translators of Nature) are reading from. If so, maybe global warming might yet be ʻsocially usefulʼ after all in opening up rational planning to an alternative teleology that mobilizes against the causes of injustice and inequality. Global warming needs a response that isnʼt only at the level of managing an environmental problem to ensure the planet is just about liveable on in the years to come – it needs one that addresses the essential un-freedom, suffering and misery within the present global system.


1. ^ See

2. ^ The ʻtragedy of the commonsʼ refers to a situation in which a common and free resource is overexploited to destruction by individuals whose economic actions follow a cost–benefit logic whereby benefits that are exclusive to individuals are weighed against costs that are distributed among all those who use the resource. This results in exploiting a resource to destruction and moving on.

3. ^ Information provided by the US Department of Energyʼs Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre, 2003.

4. ^ See the Stern Report online at In particular, the section on ʻEthical Frameworks and Intertemporal Equityʼ.

5. ^ Theodor W. Adorno, Freedom and History, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2006, p. 50.