Introduction: The Politics of Climate Change

Introduction: The Politics of Climate Change

How can we confront the challenge of climate change, especially when those hit first and hardest by climate change are poorer and more marginalized than those with the power to take large-scale action?

Art by Roger Peet

The bright promises of modern life have long had a dark side. Science and technology aren’t innately good or evil, but they are marshaled to the purposes of their sponsors, whose intentions are often far from benign. While the nuclear age, for instance, promised abundant energy, it was given shape by military concerns, and the weapons it made possible put the destruction of the planet within human reach for the first time. But at least we knew what those weapons were for.

The global system of industrial production, centuries in the making, has always been both creative and destructive, but it wasn’t until recently that we learned just how devastating and far-reaching its ecological consequences would be. Climate change wasn’t understood until the late twentieth century. The dangers posed by the continued emission of greenhouse gases are now well known, and still we blow by ominous milestones, like reaching an average 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere in May and the coming ice-free arctic summer. In the short term, there are few prospects for converting our grim knowledge into effective mitigation or adaptation. How can we confront this challenge, especially when those hit first and hardest by climate change are poorer and more marginalized than those with the power to take large-scale action?

The articles in this special section on the politics of climate change seek to answer this question in some way. The authors look at political proposals, environmental movements, and cultural developments that offer alternatives to the path we are currently on.

Mark and Paul Engler get to the heart of the political impasse in the world’s most powerful country in their article on debates in the U.S. environmental movement. The United States bears more responsibility for climate change than any other single nation, yet it has failed to pass even modest CO2 reduction legislation. The authors argue that a new relationship between environmentalists at the grassroots and inside the beltway is the way forward.

Katrina Forrester writes about a more hopeful episode in green activism across the Atlantic. Amid stalled economic growth and austerity, a small, committed group of radical greens engaged in a fight with the world’s largest energy company and managed to win over British popular opinion. Can their victory show environmentalists how to connect their struggle to prominent social and political issues?

In their respective articles, Andrew Ross and Christian Parenti take a more global view of the climate crisis. Ross examines the history and possibility of “climate debt,” a concept developed at the grassroots that offers a just, global solution to the iniquities wrought by environmental transformation. Parenti enters into a debate among left-wing greens about capitalism and the environment. The current system may be incompatible with the Earth’s ecological limits, but to address climate change before it is too late, we must engage with the powers that be and force them down the green road.

Will Boisvert turns to Germany, a country that has garnered more praise from environmentalists than any other for its energy policies, which aim to reduce carbon emissions while also phasing out nuclear energy production. But is it possible to abandon nuclear while moving off the carbon grid? Many readers will disagree with Boisvert’s answer. In an online exclusive, Osha Gray Davidson, author of Clean Break, contends with Boisvert’s claims, and Boisvert replies in turn.

On a different note, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow charts the rise of the climate change novel. This apocalyptic literature does what scientific reports cannot: it depicts our lives in a world enveloped in climactic catastrophe. With violent storms and long droughts becoming ever more frequent, that task may soon fall not to novelists, but to journalists. Between now and then, there is work to do.


Duggan | University of California Press Gardels