Political Scenarios for Climate Disaster

Political Scenarios for Climate Disaster

In the Global North we often act as if our future will be a warmer version of today: liberal capitalism, plus flood insurance, minus coral reefs. That future is a fantasy.

A bicyclist surveys a truck flipped into floodwater in Port Arthur, Texas. (Emily Kask/ AFP/Getty Images)

The scientific consensus is beyond debate: because of burning an ever-increasing amount of fossil fuels, our world is undergoing deep and rapid climate change. Unfortunately, the responses of the major states (particularly the United States) have fallen far short of what is needed with respect to reducing carbon emissions. Temperatures continue to rise; the Earth’s ecosystems are transforming before our eyes. But the coming changes are not limited to weather or the natural environment. The world’s social, political, and economic systems are certain to change as well, perhaps fundamentally. Still, here in the Global North we often act as if our future will be a warmer version of today: liberal capitalism, plus flood insurance, minus coral reefs.

That future is a fantasy. It already has a probability close to zero.

So how are we to think about alternatives? Some turn toward doom-saying and prognostications of collapse. An expanding audience eagerly consumes books with titles like Losing Earth or Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. Each offers variations on apocalyptic themes, an anti-politics for the world after the fall of human civilization.

There is no realistic scenario for addressing climate change that does not involve a comprehensive reorganization of human societies in the reasonably near term. Yet we emphasize reorganization, not collapse or apocalypse. As a species, humanity will almost certainly survive the coming centuries. But who will survive, and how they will live, is genuinely uncertain. The distribution of the burdens of substantial adaptation—which is now inevitable, whatever the extent of future carbon mitigation—and the political-economic means by which distribution is implemented: these are urgent issues facing us all.

At the heart of these problems is the capitalist nation-state that structures our world. Every other form of political-economic organization derives from and is irreducibly dependent upon it. It is almost impossible to imagine a world without it; even those with pretentions to global power usually assume its centrality via the territorial or military-political expansion of an imperial nation-state. However one chooses to date the origins of the capitalist nation-state, accelerating planetary climate change poses the greatest threat in its history. Unlike the other “permanent emergency” to which the organizational challenge of addressing climate change is frequently compared—the Second World War—the current threat is not limited to this or that nation-state or transnational alliance. It is, rather, a threat to the sovereignty of the nation-state everywhere as a means of organizing human collectivities. How those who exercise power today, and the movements that challenge them, respond to climate change will have an enormous influence on human life in the future. If we want to understand these processes, we are forced to speculate about how states and elites will attempt to shape warmer and weirder futures. And if we seek to ensure justice, democracy, and equitability, we must consider how the current conjuncture will develop and act in light of that analysis.

In Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future (2018, Verso), we examined what futures could plausibly emerge from the current geopolitical order. Will the nation-state-based zero-sum parceling of territorial sovereignty persist in the face of what is commonly described as the world’s biggest collective action problem? Will that world remain in the thrall of capital? Even among the very rich, the notion that modes of life that do not exacerbate climate change are incompatible with the endless accumulation and energy throughput of contemporary capitalism is beginning to sound like common sense. As the author of the UK government’s 2006 Stern Review famously put it, climate change “must be regarded as market failure on the greatest scale the world has seen.”

These two questions—of sovereignty and of capitalism—point toward four rough paths. We call these Climate Leviathan, Climate Mao, Climate Behemoth, and Climate X. Climate Leviathan describes an emergent global order committed to the consolidation of capitalism via the organization of a form of planetary sovereignty that can overcome the collective action problem. Climate Mao would represent a similarly planetary-scale “solution,” but one dedicated to an anti-capitalist order. Climate Behemoth describes a global arrangement animated by a chauvinistic capitalist and nationalist politics that denies—until it can only denounce—the threat climate change poses to national capitals. Climate X is the name we give the collection of movements that pursue global climate justice: movements that build non-capitalist political economies, and construct solidarities at multiple scales that reject the political logic of sovereignty.

These four broad trajectories are not equally likely. Climate Leviathan is the most plausible, if not the most preferable, for reasons similar to those behind Fredric Jameson’s famous line: “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” We are already witnessing Climate Leviathan emerge as common sense in much of the liberal-
capitalist part of the world. It is a planetary mode of power organized around adaptation, in an effort to perpetuate the current global distribution of power and wealth. It has the power of incumbency, along with the political-economic, military, and ideological power of the states and regimes that judge the existing order worth preserving. The collective desperation with which much of the progressive community in North America and Western Europe watches events unfold at the Copenhagen or Paris climate negotiations shows a widespread desire for a climate sovereignty that decides who can emit and how much, who and how to adapt, and how to apportion the costs. Many of us seem to long for someone to determine how things are going to be, in the interest of saving life on Earth.

Climate Behemoth also has an orientation toward the capitalist status quo, but unlike Leviathan it is vociferously “anti-globalist”—in other words, it is a capitalist order characterized by a reactionary, usually racist, macho-nationalism. Climate Behemoth today expresses itself most fiercely in climate denialism, a conspiracy-mongering fear that an emergent, cryptically hegemonic Climate Leviathan is the foremost “globalist” threat to the nationalist-capitalist ideal that animates much of the contemporary Republican Party and segments of the Conservative parties in the UK and Canada.

Behemoth is a significant threat to global stability especially insofar as its current seats of power number among them the United States. We finished the book in mid-2017, soon after Donald Trump was installed in the White House, not entirely prepared for how well he was cast in this role. Similarly belligerent reactionary denialist blocs, mostly led by Trump sycophants, have captured executive power in a few other states in both the Global South and North, most notably Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Trump and Bolsonaro are among the few world leaders to label climate change a “hoax”; Vladimir Putin and the House of Saud also occasionally express “skepticism,” and there is a not insignificant degree of support for similar posturing in some countries whose states acknowledge the challenge of global warming. At the electoral level, this is particularly visible in the ascendance of a few Trump wannabes at the subnational level, like Doug Ford in Ontario (Canada’s most populous and powerful province).

Still, it is fair to say that a big part of the reason Climate Behemoth seems so threatening today is attributable to its Americanism; Russia and Saudi Arabia’s provocations have much to do with their relationships with the White House. The largely white, male, sexist, and racist right wing with which Behemoth is associated can wreak havoc even when it acknowledges that climate change is real. Witness how Andrzej Duda, the president of Poland and host of the 2018 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) meetings in Katowice, doubled down on coal and derailed the EU’s decarbonization plan, or the actions of the far-right FPÖ government of Austria, which does not so much deny climate change as refuse to talk about it. Yet setting aside the real possibility that Trump might refuse to cede power peacefully, the precarious electoral basis of the few actually existing Climate Behemoths is good reason to doubt its long-term endurance.

This is not to counsel against resistance. But as terrible and devastating as the Trump presidency is, we already see the wheels starting to come off the denialist bus. We have reached a tipping point where there are so many clear signals of rapid environmental change that it is harder to confuse people by generating noise. When even its own pandering media find themselves unable to sell a hoaxer’s story to Behemoth’s constituency—with the residential abandonment of coastal Florida, say, or the depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, the water source for a considerable portion of U.S. agriculture—the legitimacy of Behemoth will be hard to maintain. One of the least predictable repercussions of Behemoth’s declining legitimacy, however, is the growing appeal of Book of Revelations apocalypticism to its fundamentalist cohort. The worldview of evangelical Christianity already does important work for Trump and Bolsonaro. The future impact of its theological politics will depend not on the planet’s climate, but on the right’s capacity to conjure an apocalyptic political climate.

At present, though, an unquestioning commitment to capitalism contains the seeds of Climate Behemoth’s own destruction, because it is difficult to imagine the persistence of capitalism in a political economy that refuses to sharply reduce the burning of fossil fuels. Most of what we know about the social and ecological impacts of global warming is categorically bad for a mode of economic organization that requires relative stability for the circulation and accumulation of capital. This is why institutions like the IMF and the World Bank are outspoken in favor of placing a price on carbon.

The inability of an atomized Climate Behemoth to address climate change–induced social and ecological transformation points us toward Leviathan-like orders of authority. But it must not be forgotten that although wealth and power are currently concentrated in the Global North, people and mass political movements are concentrated in the Global South. There is no reason to expect, for example, that in the face of climate devastation, the masses of South and East Asia will embrace a global Climate Leviathan that (at least in the inchoate form it currently takes in arenas like the UNFCCC) is only interested in the maintenance of a global order in which they are subordinated. As global warming further impoverishes, marginalizes, and kills the billions of people in this part of the world, it seems unlikely they will rally to a planetary order intended to maintain and even exacerbate existing inequalities.

All these regions have their own political-economic, ideological, and cultural histories to draw upon, many of which do not include a commitment to the regulative ideal of liberal-capitalist progress. This is the reason we give the name Climate Mao to the third future trajectory: a non-capitalist order of Leviathan-like planetary sovereignty. This is not the same thing as “Climate China,” although it is hard to imagine a scenario in which China does not play an important role in global climate politics. Instead, we call it Climate Mao partly because we anticipate that the potential for this future lies in the radical political traditions of South and East Asia, regions with historically significant rural collectivism that retains substantial contemporary organizational resources. Since this part of the world is home to literally billions of poor people, the vast majority of whom climate science indicates live in communities immediately at risk of climate change–induced disturbance—more at-risk populations than anywhere else on Earth—it seems reasonable to expect that these masses will draw upon those political and ideological traditions in the face of threats to their livelihoods. Given that climate change threatens not only the internal stability of these regions but the global political economy to which they are increasingly central, we anticipate Climate Mao would not embrace the nation-state as the locus of sovereignty, at least not for long. Insofar as capitalism stands justifiably accused of both driving climate catastrophe and preventing serious action to address it, Climate Mao represents the most likely non-capitalist formation willing to confront Leviathan on the planetary stage.

The appeal of Climate Mao to radical critics of capitalism continues to strike us. Since it is clear to them that the capitalist nation-state has proven an irremediable obstacle to climate action, let alone anything approaching climate justice, the appeal of Climate Mao is almost visceral. Like Leviathan, it promises to get beyond the spatial and political limits of the state and do something. But unlike Leviathan, it will not be beholden to the planet-eating capitalism that generated the problem in the first place—a condition that appears certain to guarantee Leviathan’s inadequacy to the problem.

The final future political trajectory we describe—a future that refuses capitalism and sovereignty, both national and planetary—we call Climate X. Climate X is unfortunately but inevitably the most difficult for us to sketch out; hence X, a placeholding variable for a range of solutions. Climate X is our term for the world for which the global climate justice movement struggles. Because that movement is in fact many movements, organized at many scales, X will take many forms, each shaped by specific historical and geographical conditions.

But at a minimum, these movements share two broad orientations. First is a rejection of the capitalist mode of political-economic organization, in which the problem of climate change originates. No remotely plausible capitalist basis for a just and secure future for all has been demonstrated, despite decades of political maneuvering and greenspeak. Second, a refusal to grant political priority, perhaps even status, to the sovereign arrogation of power, either in its national or emergent planetary form. The nation-state has already demonstrated it cannot and will not “save the planet.” Climate Mao might, but it is as likely to found climate justice as the original Maoism did social justice. If we are honest, we must acknowledge that both the nation-state and its efforts at international coordination and enforcement have proven a hindrance to meaningful action. In the Global North it has proven a massive compromise machine, a nominally “democratic” table at which capital always has the first and last word. Climate X is a recognition that a solution to the climate crisis lies beyond sovereignty, in multiple movements that organize not on the basis of predetermined autonomous political parcels, but on the basis of the struggles and livelihoods of those involved.

The multiple and centuries-long efforts of Indigenous peoples provide useful and admirable models of organization, commitment, and political creativity in the face of existential threats. These cannot exhaust the resources upon which Climate X will draw, but they are and will continue to be crucial sources of knowledge, wisdom, and solidarity, as will the many other struggles of working people, racialized communities, and others on all scales. Some, but not all, of these efforts will be based in radical left tradition. If Climate X is possible, it will only be through the post-sovereign solidarity of these many bases of climate justice.

It is worth noting that this means that Climate X does not, and will not, take the form of a Green New Deal. This is not to dismiss calls for the reorientation of state policy as mere tools of the powers-that-be, a greenwashing of the capitalist downward spiral. If, for example, the House resolution currently circulating in U.S. Congress (“Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal”) were implemented, it would be more than welcome. It is effectively a social justice omnibus bill; even if only half of its goals were undertaken, let alone realized, that would signal a remarkable turn in U.S. political economy. Yet we need to think hard about its limits.

Setting aside the array of pragmatic and denialist criticisms (it’s too expensive, it’s too hard on the energy industry and its workers, it’s “utopian”), the most obvious concern one might raise about the Green New Deal is that we simply do not have time to wait for the state to turn the full-speed-ahead tanker that is the U.S. economy around. The kind of transformation proposed cannot happen on a fast enough timeline, it at all, if it is state-led—especially in the United States, where fossil-fuel capital is so deeply entangled in the state. The Green New Deal would require civil society to reorient the Behemoth that is the United States on a similar timeline—an achievement worth celebrating, but one that is hard to believe will happen between now and 2030.

Green Keynesianism’s longer history places it squarely in the Climate Leviathan camp. At least since the most recent global financial crisis, its proponents have included not merely greenwashers like Thomas Friedman and Lawrence Summers, but brilliant critics like Ann Pettifor and Susan George. Green Keynesianism is the central platform of the influential Stern Review, and of an elaborate 2008 Deutsche Bank proposal to use national green infrastructure banks to save Europe’s financial sector. These varieties of Green Keynesianism are not identical. Like Pettifor and George, the Green New Deal goes further in its redistributive and democratic commitments than any Keynesianism that precedes it. But in crucial ways it is tightly bound to the Keynesian tradition, and shares some of its basic orientations and limits.

Green Keynesianism is a policy-institutional matrix aimed at maintaining social stability—climate risk is described as a “threat multiplier”—and it relies on well-coordinated national capitals to realize this goal. Like other Keynesianisms, it puts all its eggs in the state’s basket, assuming a welcome but maybe over-sanguine view of state capacity, but also assuming the state’s long-term commitment to the program (beyond, say, one or two administrations). While we in no way mean to impute some imperialist scheme to the Green New Deal, it is also important to note the rather abstract geopolitical context it assumes, in which the United States is an unproblematic international leader on climate action. And there has been little thought to how other states would be affected (one might, for example, expect substantial economic hardship when the world’s greatest shopper radically alters its consumption patterns).

One might say—and many have—that despite these problems, the Green New Deal is so much better than the status quo, and is the best option we have. Indeed, the program’s most articulate advocates argue compellingly that the nation-state is the most powerful institution at hand, and it would be insane not to use it if we can. We see the merit of these arguments. But while the state might possibly be a useful tool right now, it has also been perhaps the most significant obstacle to climate action. The capitalist state is extremely unlikely to produce something like a Green New Deal. We will need more radical solutions—which can only come from, and be undertaken by, the people in the places and communities in which they struggle to make, and make sense of, their lives at this perilous conjuncture.


Geoff Mann is the Director of the Centre for Global Political Economy at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is the author of In the Long Run We Are All Dead: Keynesianism, Political Economy and Revolution (Verso, 2017).

Joel Wainwright is Professor of Geography at Ohio State University. He is author of Decolonizing Development (Blackwell, 2008) and coeditor of Rethinking Palestine and Israel: Marxist Perspectives (Routledge, 2019).


Wurgraft | University of California Press Lima