Monday, June 30, 2008

First-Class Passengers of the Anthropocene

Another essay you must read is Mike Davis' piece in TomDispatch, "Living on the Ice Shelf." We've mentioned this before too, but the problem of climate change is not simply the hydrometeorological phenomena themselves. It is the coming problem of intensifying inequalities in terms of the distribution of responsibility and of effects. Davis is spot on:

Kyoto-type climate diplomacy assumes that all the major actors, once they have accepted the science in the IPCC reports, will recognize an overriding common interest in gaining control over the runaway greenhouse effect. But global warming is not War of the Worlds, where invading Martians are dedicated to annihilating all of humanity without distinction. Climate change, instead, will initially produce dramatically unequal impacts across regions and social classes. It will reinforce, not diminish, geopolitical inequality and conflict.

As the United Nations Development Program emphasized in its report last year, global warming is above all a threat to the poor and the unborn, the "two constituencies with little or no political voice." Coordinated global action on their behalf thus presupposes either their revolutionary empowerment (a scenario not considered by the IPCC) or the transmutation of the self-interest of rich countries and classes into an enlightened "solidarity" without precedent in history. From a rational-actor perspective, the latter outcome only seems realistic if it can be shown that privileged groups possess no preferential "exit" option, that internationalist public opinion drives policymaking in key countries, and that greenhouse gas mitigation could be achieved without major sacrifices in upscale Northern Hemispheric standards of living -- none of which seems highly likely.

And what if growing environmental and social turbulence, instead of galvanizing heroic innovation and international cooperation, simply drive elite publics into even more frenzied attempts to wall themselves off from the rest of humanity? Global mitigation, in this unexplored but not improbable scenario, would be tacitly abandoned (as, to some extent, it already has been) in favor of accelerated investment in selective adaptation for Earth's first-class passengers. We're talking here of the prospect of creating green and gated oases of permanent affluence on an otherwise stricken planet.

This isn't some hysterical prediction. It already exists as the big secret of climate change, while the public, benighted by its own ignorance and by intentional sideshows designed to maintain that ignorance, debates whether climate change actually exists. Now, it's going to be a matter of degrees with little real hope of "development" for poor countries, only a few bread crumbs at the margins. Again, the problem isn't one of the existence of the hydrometeorological phenomena that constitute climate change. The real problem - and it is profound, worthy of its own geohistorical designation - is political and moral. But, for now, only a handful of people even care to view it as such.

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