Category Archives: Climate Change

a position of negligible influence

Given my line of work, I should probably be among the many people who scour the latest missives from the IPCC as soon as they drop. My reasons for not doing so are two-fold. Firstly, I’m very short of time, and scanning 800+ pages of written-by-committee material in order to confirm the details of what I already know to be the general case is not a productive use of the time I have.

Secondly, I’m aware that the bit that actually gets read by anyone other than the scientific community—the tellingly-named “executive summary”—is bowdlerised to such an extent that it effectively negates the effort of the main report. It’s depressing to have that knowledge reconfirmed, but it is at least heartening to see that the fact of that bowdlerisation—and the people who are involved in making it happen—is starting to become somewhat newsworthy in itself:

Unlike the research-heavy chapters, which are controlled entirely by the scientists who research and write them, the Summary for Policymakers must be approved by government representatives from 195 countries around the world; the approval process for this year’s mitigation report was the longest and most contentious in the history of the IPCC. According to leaked reports, representatives from Saudi Arabia in particular argued for multiple references to carbon capture and storage and the watering down of language on shutting down fossil fuel production.

Oil company representatives were also included in this process as both authors and editors of the report, which has been the case since the IPCC began. For the latest report, a senior staffer for Saudi Aramco – Saudia Arabia’s state-owned oil and gas company – was one of the two coordinating lead authors, a position of considerable influence, for the chapter on cross-sector perspectives. A longtime Chevron staffer was also the review editor for the chapter on energy systems.

Fellow academics sometimes take me to task for my flat-out refusal to cater my work to audiences in the policy and business sectors; this is exactly why I stick to my guns. The revolving door between those two assemblages means it’s wasted effort.

Better, then, to build a mandate from the ground up by understanding the social side of the problem. Which is what many of us are trying to do… but while I was aware that the distribution of resources for that struggle were unevenly distributed, to say the least, the numbers are even worse than I would have guessed:

Social scientists hoping to make further inroads into not only the IPCC process, but policymaking more broadly, have a chicken-and-egg problem, according to Dana Fisher, director of the program for society and the environment at the University of Maryland and a contributing author to chapter 13. Fisher’s research focuses on the impact that activism has had on climate policymaking.

“We have insufficient funding to support the sort of large-scale research that enables you to have high confidence in your findings,” she says, which limits the amount of social science research that can be used in the report.

Less than 1% of research funding on climate from 1990 to 2018 went toward social sciences, including political science, sociology, and economics. That’s despite the fact that even physical scientists themselves agree that inaction on climate will probably not be solved by more scientific evidence.

Less than one percent. In the accounts of most big firms, that would be considered a rounding error, hardly worth a footnote. Which is exactly how most social scientific research on climate change is treated in the IPCC reports, funnily enough.

But like I say, perhaps our relentless messaging is paying off a little bit; we make that <1% work pretty fucking hard, after all.

“Back in the 80s, we believed in the information deficit model of social change, and that if we could only get the information to policymakers they would do the right thing,” says atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira, senior scientist for Bill Gates’s Breakthrough Energy. “And now we see that really it’s not about information deficit, it’s about power relations, and people wanting to keep economic and political power. And so just telling people some more climate science isn’t going to help anything.”

To see someone publicly knocking the information deficit model—which was already discredited in medical science by the mid-1980s, incidentally—is always nice; to see it coming from a representative of one of Wild Billy Gates’s foundations borders on cognitive dissonance. Gates’s projects are, unsurprisingly, profoundly solutionist in their approach to the issue, due to solutionism being a load-bearing plank of the paradigmatic episteme; it’s not malice, it’s just the way people think about these things in this period of history. So for one of his people to be talking about the problematic sustainment of power relations is therefore kinda weird, though I’m confident that Breakthrough Energy has some palatable pretzel logic through which “not needing any more climate science” converts neatly to “unquestioned roll-out of disruptive and innovative solutions from the private sector”. Which is to say: they’re still working on the info deficit model, but in a way that builds on the expertise of the tech sector for selling solutions. Everyone’s aware of the problem; a market has been created. The opportunity which recognises itself is doing what it does best, unable to confront the possibility that its self-recognition is the root of the problem it’s trying to solve.

Ah, well—there ain’t much point in bitching. The only thing to do is to do the work… though sometimes a bit of bitching into the aether is what you need to be able to pick up your shovel and wade into the sewers once again. Selah.

changing phases

I seem to have gotten myself published again, in the fiction qua fiction domain*.

Talk about TOC imposter syndrome… I had no idea I’d be appearing alongside that roster of names! (Click through above to see it in full, but it includes Corey J White, Eugen Bacon, Paolo Bacigalupi, Greg Egan, Simon Sellars, Cat Sparks, Grace Dugan… I mean, c’mon now.) Many thanks to Matthew Chrulew for seeing some merit in the thing I cranked out, and for being forgiving on deadlines for a contributor who lost a week to The ‘Rona.

(Yes, this was one of the many things I had to write very quickly in January—and almost certainly the most enjoyable, given the others were job applications.)

Here’s the cover in full, courtesy artist Perdita Phillips on the birdsite:

If you’re wondering where and when you can get a copy, well, so am I; that news is not yet out. I would point you at Twelfth Planet Press’s website, but it doesn’t seem to have been updated for a couple years, so best follow their birdsite account as embedded above, I guess? I’ll point to more concrete things when I know where to point.

[ * I say “fiction qua fiction” because so much of my academic work tends to have fictional, or at least speculative, elements in it these days… but the irony is that my fiction, when I have the time to produce it, increasingly includes non-fictional and/or academic forms and styles, and this piece is no exception in that regard. But if you want to know what I mean by that, well, you’re just gonna have to buy the book, aren’t you? ]

a sense of an enclosed present, a total present, severed from history

I was yesterday years old when I learned (courtesy David Higgins’ Reverse Colonization, which I may write about directly if time allows) that David Harvey—yes, that’s Lovable Marxist Granddad David Harvey™—can count among his many achievements having been a minor contributor to Mike Moorcock’s run at New Worlds, where he published a piece of fiction and an editorial on (among other topics) entropy.

Higgins’s discussion of Harvey’s NW stuff reminded me of one of Harvey’s better-known academic contributions, namely the notion of “time-space compression” as a function of capitalism, which is implicated in the emergence of the postmodern condition. I’ve been meaning to look that up for a while now, not least because I’ve assumed it’s related to a few underdeveloped squibs that leapt out at me during my (rather tormented and difficult) first attempt at scaling the mountain of Uncle Karl’s Grundrisse; these asides concern what Marx referred to as “the means of communication”, but which we would probably now refer to as (yes, you guessed it) infrastructure.

In lieu of actually getting hold of and reading Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry in the Origins of Cultural Change (because hahahah, OMG, I have waaaaaay too many things to do and read for me to consider adding another one to the queue at this point), I dug out this retrospective piece by Natalie Melas at the Post45 collective, which sets the book alongside the (much better known) Fredric Jameson works on the postmodern. These excerpts, however, are more concerned with Harvey’s distinct notion of time-space compression, because it’s of greater and more immediate relevance to my work. Clip the first:

The signal contribution of Harvey’s argument is the analysis of “time-space compression” in which capitalism, as he puts it, “annihilates space through time.” The way global space shrinks in our experience and understanding relative to the time it takes to traverse it is one basic index of the time-space compression, but the term also points to “processes that so revolutionize the objective qualities of space and time that we are forced to alter, sometimes in quite radical ways, how we represent the world to ourselves.”5 Harvey specifies several “rounds” of time-space compression in the history of capitalism. These time-space compressions are prompted by alterations in “the objective qualities of space and time,” but their ramifications are an alteration not only in our experience but also in our representation of the world. Representation is the key vector in Harvey’s analysis that allows for the intersection of visual art, film, architecture, urban planning and other modalities of postmodern culture.

No points to VCTB regulars for guessing that I’m about to make the point that the medium of time-space compression is infrastructure; this is a media-ecological argument, in that it extends the notion of “media” from the lay understanding (i.e. newspapers, radio, TV, internet) into the material distributive systems through/across which those representational media are (re)produced. The equivalence goes the other way, as well, in that we can think about, say, water treatment and distribution systems as a sort of system of representation and communication… and that also means that the use of the term “abstraction” in the civil engineering discourse around infrastructure suddenly has a very interesting (i.e. alarming) doubled meaning.

Again, I need to read the actual book to be sure, but I strongly suspect that there’s support in Harvey’s thinking for my own argument that the metasystem (a.k.a. concrete infrastructure, pun very much intended) is always already the metamedium, which is to say it is the screen upon which the Debordian Spectacle is projected. Clip the second:

For Harvey, as for Jameson, the postmodern time-space compression gave on to a sense of an enclosed present, a total present, severed from history at least in its dialectical form. Our own moment, under the pressure of ecological crisis, seems instead preoccupied by a futurity bound to the consciousness of a geological time scale, a scale that utterly dwarfs historical epochality.13 The extinction of homo sapiens, along with other animal and plant life, is persistently knowable but unrepresentable, no less so than the aesthetic problematic of globality in postmodernism that Jameson describes and names the “postmodern sublime” at the end of the eponymous essay in Postmodernism, or The Logic of Late Capitalism. Is there a distinct rupture between contemporary discourses on environmental catastrophe and the thematics of postmodernism, or is there a hidden continuity, or both?

Meanwhile, the questions of (un)representability that Melas is poking at here seem to me to be the same questions that Latour has been wrestling with in the last few decades, albeit from a very different direction… and that loops me back to the Higgins book, in a way, because it quite rightly defends postmodern critique against the accusation that it is somehow to blame for the soi disant “post-truth” phenomenon, but nonetheless (perhaps unavoidably?) sustains the Foucauldean reification of ideas like “power” and “neoliberalism”, which Latour would argue are black boxes which must be opened and explored as the perpetually renegotiated networks of relations that they are. Indeed, Higgins’s final chapter, on a lesser-known Chip Delany trilogy, kind of makes the same point… but it does so with(in) the paradigm of postmodern critique, and so carries through what Latour (and, increasingly, I) would describe as the (well-intended) limitations thereof.

So, yeah—some useful connections here. We’ll see how time allows for me to write more about the Higgins, because it’s an interesting book in its own right, as well as a demonstration of the limits of certain critical apparatuses.

arrogant fidelity

Looks like the universe is serendipitously feeding my streak of focus on growthism. Clipped from Geoff Mann reviewing William Nordhaus’s new tome at the LRB:

Nordhaus attempts to make climate change compatible with ceaseless long-run growth by emphasising the global economy’s ‘carbon intensity’ instead of its carbon sensitivity. The Spirit of Green is most sanguine in its demonstration that a decreasing amount of CO2 is required to fuel a unit of global growth. I think his point is that since growth requires less carbon than it did in the past, we should be more hopeful. Maybe I am missing something, but it seems to me that continued emissions are continued emissions. Long-term studies of emissions pathways show that the problem, in the end, is the absolute volume of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. We simply have to stop emitting them as soon as possible. There is no hope to be placed in the gradually declining carbon intensity of growth that nonetheless continues to add to the atmospheric pool. In fact, if growth accelerates, decreasing carbon intensity is quite compatible with increasing emissions. The problem, in the models and in our current reality, is the arrogant fidelity to growth.

No further questions, your honour.

ecosystems are not factories / the tyranny of scale

Just a quick one today (in case yesterday’s table-thumpin’ epic gave you the fear), and it’s a call-back supplementary to an earlier squib about the fetish for “scaling up” in, well, everything.

The case in hand here is food production, and perhaps it’s the case where the argument is made most easily.

Scalability as a value derives from an industrial way of thinking: that the best solutions are those that can be replicated and implemented widely, and that uniformity breeds efficiency and productivity. This may work in a factory, but ecosystems are not factories. Ecosystem productivity derives not from uniformity but from diversity, flexibility and change. Accordingly, these, not scalability, are the traits that are key to success for the most exciting food systems innovations.

I think most folk with even the slightest idea about the concept of ecosystem understand this point—or perhaps I just hope so? Anyway, the logic continues thusly:

Rather than asking whether a practice “scales” — whether it works if adopted everywhere — we ought to instead ask whether a practice works in and for specific people and places, and whether it can align with or enhance existing culturally valued practices and systems in other places. “Is this approach in harmony with the people and other living things in this region?” “Does it work with or against the goals and needs here?” And so on.

Obvious, right? OK, so now extend that logic to the vast majority of other human practices, and fold in the extent to which those practices are already massively shaped by the environment in which they are performed, as well as by a long historical succession of meanings and values associated with the telos of said practice (which is to say, the end to which the practice is the means). This was part of my point yesterday, the main reason you can’t just hope to change the way people do things by telling them a “better” way, or selling them a better gadget: both the gadgets enrolled in the doing of a thing, and the better-or-worseness of the particularity of the performance as seen by the performer, are massively contingent and heterogeneous, even within relatively small geographical areas.

Now, this wasn’t always the case: there was a relative local homogeneity of practices in pre-industrial peoples, and that homogeneity was shaped by exactly the necessity of its reliance upon the particularities of the local ecosystem. There’s no going back to that, even if it were something to aspire to (and I’m not sure it would be, even leaving aside the alarming adjacency of ecofascism to that sort of thinking), because the fetish for scale has long since tangled most of us up in ecosystems far from where we ourselves actually are in space. This is the magic of metasystemic infrastructure, the way in which it has released (some of) us from the boundness-to-one-place that came with the sedentary grain-state… but it is also the reason that infrastructure is a collective prosthesis in whose absence we would probably die quite quickly. Turns out you can’t build a space-suit using only what’s available in your back yard.

So there’s no way to turn back the clock to a time before scaling… but equally, the scaling-up dogma (which is another ideological plank of the economic memeplex discussed yesterday) is a dead end; as Loring suggests above, it implicitly treats the world as a factory, and monopoly (and monoculture) as victory condition.

As I often say, the way out is through. Surfacing, critiquing and stamping out dogmas such as “does it scale?” and “unleashing latent desire” has to be a part of that through-going, I think… and on the basis of some field-work visits made in the last few weeks, plus Loring’s comments above, I find myself wondering whether—as hippy-dippy as it admittedly sounds, in a culture where scale and capital-S Science are dominant deities of the pantheon—close contact with agriculture and cultivation might be the easiest way to make these admittedly abstract ideas tangible and immediate to people.