Oct 5 2011

Apocalypse Now: the Geopolitics of Climate Change

Astra Taylor

web exclusive


I'm just guessing, but I bet one of the most irritating things about being an expert on climate change is people asking you where they should hunker down to weather the coming crisis. Where's a good place to buy property given the current forecast? Somewhere that's not too close to the coast, away from rising sea levels and tropical storms. A place that has fresh water and other natural resources in abundance, of course. And, better yet, somewhere that will get more pleasant as the thermometer cranks. New York City is looking iffy these days. Phoenix is out. Montreal perhaps? Lucky for me, I have a Canadian passport.

Christian Parenti's harrowing tour-de-force Tropic of Chaos lays out what's so nauseating about this line of thought, though I admit I've indulged in it. Urban tornadoes, menacing hurricanes, raging forest fires, and record highs aside, climate change is still something many of us think of as set in the future, something to anticipate and plan for, or, perhaps, avert. Not so for the millions of people already bearing the brunt of our unflagging CO2 consumption even as a growing number of Americans ask whether climate change exists.

Well, it does, and it's deadly. Parenti begins with the story of Ekaru Loruman, a Turkana tribesman killed in northwest Kenya during a cattle raid and left to rot while sheep and goats grazed nearby. "What forces compelled his murder?" Parenti asks. The answer, he eventually concludes, is a "catastrophic convergence of poverty, violence, and climate change." Rising temperatures and erratic weather had pushed Loruman's people further and further south into enemy territory. Climate change, Parenti says, is a "radical accelerant," a factor that compounds and amplifies preexisting social, economic, and political antagonisms. Deadly cattle raids are not new, but the intensity and desperation that now suffuses them is.

"Climate change arrives in a world primed for crisis," Parenti writes. The dual legacies of Cold War militarism and neoliberal economic policies have wrecked the countries that make up what he calls the Tropic of Chaos—"a belt of economically and politically battered post-colonial states girding the planet's mid-latitudes"— flooding them with weapons, fraying the social fabric, increasing inequality, hollowing out governments, and drying up public services. As a result, climate change simply does not look the way we expect it to look: It's not just melting ice caps and dispossessed polar bears, but also civil war, banditry, famine, social strife, upheaval, insurgency, and state failure. This is why, if you read one book on climate change this year (and really, who can bear to read more than one?), Tropic of Chaos should be it. The way you understand the changing climate, and the resulting conflicts that serrate our world, will be transformed.

Parenti reports from remote villages in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, revealing the ways extreme weather is playing out on the ground by talking to authorities, outlaws, shepherds, and workers. The book is encyclopedic, addressing the British annexation of East Africa, global warming-fueled water tensions between India and Pakistan, adaptive responses to climate change in Brazil, the history of Mexican federal debt, and why the Taliban and the poppy are so popular in Afghanistan. The answer to the latter is that facing vicious cycles of drought and flooding that scientists have linked to anthropogenic global warming, poppies are one of the only plants that will grow in parched soil, requiring one-sixth the water of wheat. "In the last three years, many farms have gotten out of debt because of poppy. No other crop compares to it," a grateful farmer tells Parenti before informing him that only ten percent of his other crops survived.

Deftly weaving history, investigative journalism, and the latest climate science, Parenti makes a convincing case that climate change is already in effect. Even if the economy collapsed and our energy use fell to zero overnight, Parenti maintains that there is already enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to cause significant ecological damage. And we may have already reached the tipping point. Meanwhile, the public face of the American government is living in La La Land: in 2010 the Center for American Progress reported that fifty percent of the one hundred new GOP members of Congress were "climate change skeptics." This willful ignorance doesn't jibe with a Department of Defense report and a slew of government statements outlining the threats posed by global warming. The Pentagon, for example, calls climate change a "threat multiplier," something that inflames and escalates pre-existing social strife and may produce up to one billion refugees by 2050. A Pentagon-commissioned study from 2004 co-authored by a former head of planning at Royal Dutch/Shell turned CIA consultant prophesizes a bleak outcome: "Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life. Once again, warfare would define human life." The problem, though, is that instead of robust mitigation or progressive adaptation, the US is pursuing a strategy Parenti calls the "politics of the armed life boat," which involves "responding to climate change by arming, excluding, forgetting, repressing, policing, and killing." We've got ours; the rest of the world—especially those Mexican immigrants who are moving north due to a lack of water—better keep out. We should be as worried about our military leaders' destructive and repressive response to climate change as we should be about climate change's impact on our weather systems.

By the end of Parenti's book, you feel spent. You've relived Western history from colonialism through the War on Terror, perused government documents and meteorological studies, and visited Maoist rebels in the jungle and nearby immigrant detention centers. Yet at the end of all this, Parenti emphasizes one thing: the goal is to cut the production of greenhouse gases. Some sensible steps that might facilitate this are the focus of Gernot Wagner's But Will The Planet Notice? a comparatively temperate, if wonkish, elucidation of economic policies the author believes could guide market forces towards less ecologically destructive ends. In contrast to Parenti's holistic view, Wagner zooms in to offer the perspective of a well-meaning technocrat.

According to his bio, "Gernot Wagner…doesn't eat meat, doesn't drive, and knows full-well the futility of his personal choices." Wagner's first target, then, is individualistic environmental do-goodism. This book reminded me again and again that the canvas sack I just used at the check-out line, my two decades of veganism, and the fact that I didn't fly this summer don't matter one iota in the scheme of things. Since Americans emit an average of twenty tons of carbon a year per capita (twice that of their European counterparts and more than twenty times that of a resident of India or Africa), the small and slightly greener choices each person makes are imperceptible as far as the earth is concerned. As Wagner quickly adds, though, the point isn't that we should stop taking these steps, but that they must become more widespread. Instead of a random sacrifice, we need systemic change—intelligent economic policies everyone has to adhere to: things like a "plastax" so that everyone passes up disposable bags, stringent limits on the number of fish that can be hauled from the ocean, and a cap-and-trade system that charges polluters to spew C02. The policies Wagner advocates are reasonable and road-tested (in Ireland the plastax cut plastic bag use by ninety percent; in the US, cap-and-trade helped reduce acid rain and phase out leaded gasoline). Wagner's market-based solutions are not utopian, but represent the absolute minimum given the enormity of the problem at hand.

As much as I'd like to see these proposals enacted—hell, it'd be a start—I found Wagner's rhetorical approach a bit odd. On the one hand, But Will The Planet Notice? presents a sustained critique of conventional economic thinking, the kind that envisions people as rational actors, favors a laissez-faire approach to everything, worships at the alter of growth and GDP, and balks at the word "tax." On the other, it lionizes economists as our only source of ecological salvation, elevating them over scientists, politicians and activists (How Smart Economics Can Save the World is the subtitle). While I remain skeptical, I was more forgiving of Wagner's strange tack once I accepted that I likely wasn't the book's target audience. But Will The Planet Notice? is geared towards those who drank the econ 101 kool-aid. Wagner does an admirable job of trying to explain to those inclined to see any sort of regulation as anathema that we are not, in fact, living in a "free market" but what he called, in a recent op-ed, "planetary socialism at its worst": a scenario that has the majority of the world's population suffering the negative effects of a privileged minority's indulgences. Day after day we make bad choices because we don't pay the full price of them. Roads subsidized by public money, cheap gas, and free parking all encourage individuals to drive; meanwhile those who walk, bike, or take the bus, whether by choice or necessity, have to live with the emissions.

In his final pages, Wagner jabs at environmentalists who argue against cap-and-trade, singling out the philosopher Michael Sandel, who has argued that selling the right to pollute is immoral. According to Wagner, such a view is na´ve: We need to think economically, not ethically, and devise proper incentives rather than guilt people into doing good. He has a point, but so does Sandel. At the same time—and this is more troubling—Wagner ignores well-founded criticisms of cap-and-trade articulated by figures like Naomi Klein and James Hansen, the NASA scientist who sounded an early alarm about global warming and published a New York Times editorial warning that cap-and-trade could perpetuate pollution by opening the door to Wall Street corruption. There's plenty of evidence suggesting that the market for trading permits is under-regulated (carbon trading fraud has already been reported) while the "offsets" purchased from foreign projects lack oversight (are we really sure those forests in South America are being preserved?). In other words, many environmentalists agree that that we need to raise the price of carbon, whether by tax or cap, but the trading aspect is controversial for good reason. Yet you would never know that from reading Wagner's book. There is also no discussion of how to muster the political will or might to enact the smart policies he lays out in detail.

But Will The Planet Notice? provides more evidence of how screwed up the whole conversation about climate change is in this country. On one side, we have the denialists who, following the advice of Republican strategist Frank Lunz and backed by tens of millions from Exxon and the Koch brothers, spread seeds of doubt despite the scientific consensus that greenhouse gases are doing us no good. On the other, the free market fundamentalists who would rather watch people die from the bow of their armed lifeboat than see the state intervene. Meanwhile, as Parenti warns, our grasp of the issue isn't keeping pace with current events. In late August, after months of news about record draughts and food shortages in the horn of Africa and well after Tropic of Chaos went to press, the BBC reported that six hundred people died in the Sudan after a cattle raid. The story was told as one of "inter-ethnic clashes," revenge, and underdevelopment. The geopolitics of climate change went unmentioned.

Advertisement