In an environmental impact study that made headlines last month, the Trump Administration argued that anthropogenic climate change is likely to lead to a 4°C increase in average temperatures by 2100. According to the memo, modest reforms, like the fuel-efficiency standards the study was aiming to overturn, will make no appreciable difference in global climate change.
That outrage greeted the release of this memo was unsurprising. Throughout his candidacy and his presidency, Trump has preferred to think of climate change as a “Chinese hoax,” and his administration, like all recent Republican regimes, has committed itself to an accelerated anti-environmentalism, overturning with ecstatic vigor its predecessor’s modest restraints and regulations. Still, in its own perverse way, the Trump study is one of the most forthright presentations on climate change to come from a Global North government in recent memory.
Trump withdrew from the 2015 Paris Agreement more than a year ago, for which he has been condemned in the US and abroad. But the unfortunate truth is that the non-binding treaty’s stated targets—to keep global temperatures to a less-than-1.5°C increase above pre-industrial levels over the next eighty years—were technically already impossible three years before it was signed. In the simplest terms, even with a reduction in the rate of carbon emissions, emissions as a whole are on track to increase by about 3 percent per year. To hold to the actual goals of the climate treaty, the actual output (not simply its rate) of carbon emissions would have to decrease in the range of 2 to 3 percent per year. Thus, in most likely scenarios, a 1.5 to 2°C increase threshold will be passed by 2050, and perhaps as early as the mid-2030s. What’s more is that the very idea embodied in the Paris Agreement—a transition to sustainability within existing political, economic, and social systems—is simply not plausible. To use the language of the administration’s study, such efforts are not currently “economically practicable.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released just a week after the administration study emphatically underlines this point: at every turn, mitigation and adaptation efforts are “limited by economic, financial, human capacity and institutional constraints.”
In a much-discussed recent paper in PNAS broadly known as the “Hothouse Earth” paper, a team of noted climate scientists led by Will Steffen, Johan Rockström, and Katherine Richardson argue that unless drastic transformations were to occur, even increases of 1.5 or 2°C could lock in the “Hothouse” scenario, the result of a “cascade of feedbacks” in ecological systems. The idea of cascading effects or a series of triggered events is not new in the climate science literature, but Steffen et al were far more sanguine than is typical about how much human social and economic systems—rather than simply technological systems—play a central role in this process:
The present dominant socioeconomic system . . . is based on high-carbon economic growth and exploitative resource use. Attempts to modify this system have met with some success locally but little success globally in reducing greenhouse gas emissions or building more effective stewardship of the biosphere. Incremental linear changes to the present socioeconomic system are not enough to stabilize the Earth System.
In other words, small-bore reforms—a little cap-and-trade here, some fuel efficiency there—are not credible. For all their symbolic weight and political utility for figures like Emmanuel Macron or Angela Merkel, the Paris Climate Accords have offered little more than a fig leaf. Even the modest reductions in emissions—what Steffen et al describe as “some success locally”—deserve an asterisk. Many would argue that measuring carbon output by national boundary in a globalized world is highly misleading. Some of those local success stories are precisely that: partial transitions to clean energy or higher efficiency. But a far clearer picture can be found in the world of industrial production. Just as so much global manufacturing has shifted to places like China, so have much of the related emissions. Today, as ever, a vast number of ideologues and politicians of fundamental-system preservation like to present themselves as the adults in the room, the experts who can be trusted with the ever more complex problems of the 21st century. But nothing could be further from the truth. When it comes to centrist technocracy and the climate, it’s not that the emperor is wearing no clothes. The whole suit is on fire.
At the center of the Anthropocene lies what the PNAS scientists refer to as the “present dominant socioeconomic system.” Capitalism as we know it has not simply steered the global human ecological niche off course; it has driven us completely into a ditch. “High-carbon economic growth” and “exploitative resource use” are constitutive of this system, not incidental to it. And this resource exploitation is not limited to fossil fuels and rare-earth metals. Everything from the augmented mental health regimes of white-collar workers in the Global North to increasingly destabilized and dispossessed farmers and fishermen in the Global South are part of its extractive circuit. Its causal tendrils snake back through the history of colonization, of coal and oil, of geopolitics, and, of course, profit.
Yet the period of world history since the 1980s has been the most extractive in human history. Nearly 56 percent of all atmospheric carbon since the dawn of the industrial revolution has been produced in these past four decades. The crisis of the Anthropocene is not a story about individual consumption choices, or one about technology per se. It is about a system that requires infinite accumulation in a finite world, about fundamental-system preservation at the highest costs possible. We should think less about how “we” are destroying “the world” and more about how the particular set of conditions that has accommodated more than seven billion people thus far is being profoundly reorganized and destabilized by the need to maintain high profits, long past the point where economically they should have collapsed.
As the growing literature addressing the Anthropocene makes clear from an unlikely variety of perspectives—world systems theory, green Marxisms, and ecological economics for sure, but also more mainstream heterodox economics like that of Kate Raworth—our current growth-based paradigm is simply unsustainable. Even Larry Summers and Robert Gordon have argued for some time that a permanent aggregate reduction in growth to extremely low levels (approximately 1 percent or so) in developed economies is very likely. From a geophysical point of view—as well as from a sociological or political economic point of view—“we” have invested ever-increasing resources—ecological, social, individual, even political—for incredibly paltry returns, and a questionable future for the vast majority of the human species.
The first confusion around the Anthropocene is temporal: the Anthropocene is already here. There is a strong tendency to talk about climate change as on the horizon. The crisis is in the here and now. Atmospheric carbon passed 400ppm in September 2016 and is unlikely to go below that level within centuries or longer. We are already living not only through climate-change-induced crises but through the social, economic, and political causes and consequences of an increasingly “Hothouse Earth.” The Anthropocene is not just super-storms, coral bleaching, rising sea levels, groundwater depletion, and soil erosion. It is also forced human migration, political instability, resource wars, and overall socioeconomic exhaustion. These are not conditions we are about to discover but a catastrophe we already inhabit. Additionally, climate change does not “stack” on top of existing inequalities; those inequalities are necessary to maintain the overall system that drives us toward climate change. In one of the most vicious cycles imaginable, further stressors on each point in our global human ecological niche—each node on that extractive circuit—help maintain the very system that will need even more extraction tomorrow than it did today.
But the second, greater confusion is political. Maintaining capitalism as we know it requires tearing holes in the state as well as the biosphere. It requires making international institutions that facilitate the absolute freedom of capital flows while restricting the flow of human migration. It requires preventing local sovereign power in the Global South (and increasingly in the Global North, as well). Carving out a sustainable global human ecological niche is the political project at hand. As Kate Aronoff noted in an interview with Steffen, one of the underappreciated aspects of the “Hothouse Earth” paper was that it did not claim that “Hothouse Earth” is inevitable. There are a whole host of practices that might mitigate some of the worst aspects of climate change and help humans adapt to the Anthropocene. But this requires political mechanisms, social movements, states, and even international institutions capable of executing the kinds of radical transformations necessary for the vast majority of people. Like Bill McKibben and the scholar Andreas Malm, Steffen uses the metaphor of switching to an unprecedented “peace-time” war-footing in Global North states like the UK and USA.
Such an effort will require relinquishing some of the most closely held political dogmas of our time in the Global North. For those who dream a little too fondly of a postwar Global North prosperity fueled by unsustainable and increasingly improbable growth rates and massive petro-chemical inputs, the time has come to confront the fact that this nostalgia is beyond flawed—it is deadly. Above all, the political conversation around the Anthropocene must hinge not on technocratic governance but on democratization. The democratization of state and society—in many different ways, in many different geographies, taking many different forms—is the political and material medium through which the power for an actual Anthropocene politics can flow.
The Trump memo rightly implies that there are “winners” and “losers” in what the natural scientific literature ironically calls “business as usual.” The memo outlines a form of right-wing climate realism whose winners and losers are obvious. The evidence has been visible for some time in what might be called “detachable infrastructure” for the 1 percent (private transportation networks, drone-ports, luxury-survival architecture, and the like), and in tax policies that don’t seem concerned for the basic social reproduction of society. One might call this a Trumpian vision of the future.
Meanwhile, the broad contours of an agenda for a sustainable Anthropocene have become clearer. Rapid, planned decarbonization and transition to renewables concomitant with equal restrictions on fossil fuel extractions. Decommodification of basic social goods that we already know are more efficient and effective when publicly provisioned. A vast shift of resources—and sovereign power—to the Global South, not out of moral duty, but out of rational necessity concomitant with a move away from economic-growth paradigms and toward “growth agnosticism,” human development, and redistribution. An end to further dispossession and enclosure, and a turn to sustainable, agroecological food production. A permanent shift in the balance of political power away from capital and to labor. Greater restrictions, and democratic guidance, of capital flows, and greater freedom and facilitation for human migrations. And, underneath all, a release from the vicious cycle described above, a world of greater individual, social, and political security, greater temporal freedom, greater if different material freedoms, and greater human flourishing. Rather than conducting dogmatic debates about growth per se (when the real conversation is about social relations, distribution, wealth, and profit) or scholastic investigations into “real socialism” or “managing capitalism,” the left needs a potentially governing political project for the Anthropocene.
There are some who look on such an agenda as a horrifying nightmare. Others—a significant potential mass—as blessed relief. But the Trump study helps illuminate more than the nightmare of a right-wing climate realism. It shows how lacking the left is in a comparable program. The climate debate is not only about developing ideas for mitigation and adaptation; it revolves around classic political questions. Who is the potential subject to carry through such a project? How might it be formed? Answering these questions is essential. Neither the right-wing threat to the planet nor its surprising ideological cogency can be opposed with half-measures.