Paradoxes of Climate Politics

Feminism rests on a paradox, as historian Joan W. Scott laid out in her wonderful 1996 book, Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man. Since the 18th century, women’s movements struggling for full citizenship have argued that gender differences are irrelevant to politics. Organizing under the banner of women’s rights, however, meant codifying the very difference they were fighting against.

The paradox of feminism has been a politically productive one: women’s rights have advanced through a combination of universalism (gender differences are irrelevant) and particularism (women are oppressed, and should therefore mobilize as women). A similar dynamic can be seen in anti-racist movements.

This paradox cannot be easily resolved, according to Scott. But it seems to be the very stuff of modern politics.

Accordingly, new avatars of the paradox continue to manifest themselves, most recently in the climate change sphere. Last October, the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) began meeting in Berlin to decide if we live in a new geological epoch, one defined by the imprint of mankind on the planet: the so-called “Anthropocene.”

Since the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen coined that term in 2000, scientists have been asking whether we still find ourselves in the Holocene, an interglacial period that began around 12,000 years ago, or if the human species—anthropos—has become the geological force determining the future of the planet.

The moment when the Anthropocene is supposed to have started is a matter for debate. Crutzen suggested that a logical candidate would be the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, at the end of the 18th century. Other scientists favor the onset of the nuclear age in the middle of the 20th century. The ICS aims to have a proposal ready for the 2016 International Geological Congress, to be held in Cape Town, South Africa, where the discussion will go on.

Whatever the outcome, it is clear that the core idea of the Anthropocene is a universalist one. It implies that mankind as such is responsible for climate change, and that we will all suffer from the consequences—a common stance among climate scientists, who tend to downplay intra-human differences in their public framings of the crisis. But it is also present in many environmental movements, and was one of the driving ideas in the mobilizations leading up to last fall’s People’s Climate March, for instance.

However, the effects of climate change will not be felt with the same intensity by all countries, or by different class, gender, and racial groups. As the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report has recognized, climate change will aggravate environmental inequalities, and the probability of suffering from the consequences of pollution, resource depletion, or natural catastrophes will be greater for the poor than for the rich.

To account for these inequalities, a group of social scientists, among them historian Mike Davis and sociologist Jason Moore, have suggested calling our new era the Capitalocene rather than Anthropocene. Mankind is not responsible for climate change, they argue—the logic of capital accumulation is. Since the industrial revolution, capitalism has harnessed ever-growing amounts of fossil fuels to expand across the globe. The carbon-based energy system it has built and relies on is the source of greenhouse gas emissions. From this perspective, intra-human differences matter a great deal when it comes to thinking about climate change, and geological periodization should acknowledge this fact.

The political implications of this debate are huge. The Anthropocene story implies that intra-human differences such as class conflict should be put aside in order to solve climate change, which is bigger and more urgent. The Capitalocene story, in contrast, argues that it is fundamentally a class problem, and that dealing with inequality is a necessary condition for forging deep solutions to the ecological crisis. This idea was also present during the climate march in New York, which was led by Indigenous and frontline communities disproportionately impacted by environmental destruction.

Is there a way out of this climate paradox? I flew from Paris to New York and back recently, thus emitting around 1.1 tons of CO2. (According to the IPCC, aviation is responsible for 3.5% of anthropogenic carbon, and it is one of the fastest growing sources). This is certainly not a fact that I take lightly. Any serious green transition will require reorganizing our transportation systems from top to bottom.

Yet as a 2013 study found, two-thirds of global emissions are caused by only 90 multinational corporations. More generally, inequalities between classes, branches of industry, and countries are key to understanding the structure of greenhouse-gas emissions. And most of the available evidence points to the same culprit: the intrinsic link between capital accumulation and the carbon-based energy system. From a purely analytical point of view, the Capitalocene story is undoubtedly right.

But as Slavoj Žižek has observed in his provocative reflections on human rights, even problematic universal constructs can be useful tools for the oppressed. “Universal human rights,” according to Žižek, “are effectively the right of white, male property-owners to exchange freely on the market, exploit workers and women, and exert political domination.” The historical record shows that all sorts of nasty behavior by elites have been dressed up in the language of human rights. But even if ideology-laden, “it was bourgeois ‘formal freedom’ that set in motion the very ‘material’ political demands and practices of feminism or trade unionism.”

As with human rights, the notion of the Anthropocene it is at once illusory and necessary. It is illusory because human beings are not equally responsible for climate change and will not suffer equally from its effects. But it is nonetheless necessary, as a universal idea that can become a concrete political force and help to enlarge the perimeter of the climate fight. The tension between the Anthropocene and the Capitalocene may well drive future successes of the movement to solve the crisis, at the upcoming UN conference in Paris and beyond.

Graphic by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme.