Interview with Nigel Clark on Climate Change and Justice

Photo: Nigel Clark

Following his contribution to the Special Issue on Changing Climates (TCS 27.2/3), Nigel Clark continues his work on climate change in a recent talk at King’s College, London. Here, Jennifer Barth interviews him on the meaning of justice, the limits of climate calculations, and alternatives to the economic logic of understanding climate change.

Next week, we’ll be posting the full text of his lecture exclusively on the TCS Blog.

Jennifer Barth: In your talk at King’s College, Beyond Justice? The Radical Asymmetries of Climate Change, you draw on Derrida’s notion of justice – justice has to start from the desire to be just. Given this starting point, how do you define justice and climate justice?

Nigel Clark: For Derrida, justice is whatever is fair and right according to the standards of the field in question. In this sense, it requires us to do our sums: to calculate who has done what to whom, and what is owed to make amends. It must be impartial and impersonal. But the twist that Derrida adds, which comes in part from his reading of Levinas, is that this calculating idea of justice needs a boost. It requires us to actually care enough about those on the receiving end of injustice to get the pursuit of justice off the ground and to keep it going through all the impediments people are going to put in its way. So justice always hinges on this interplay between passion and impartiality, between allowing ourselves to be moved and playing by the rules.

If this is the case wherever justice is sought, it seems to me to be especially important in the case of human-induced climate change. In the pursuit of climate justice, its fairly clear that the sums will never add up, we will never know for sure exactly what part of the changes taking place belong to human activity and what belongs to the dynamics of the planet. And that’s even before we apportion out human-induced climate change between all the different contributors.

That’s what makes it so easy to hold up the whole procedure, to play on uncertainty, to get bogged down in the details, to deny or shift responsibility. This is why the desire for justice is so crucial, why the science and the law and the economics of climate change needs that extra boost to push the pursuit of justice on, past the uncertainties and all the ways they are deployed to hold up and divert the process of justice. That is why it needs both a commitment to impartiality and even-handedness, but also a very impartial desire not to let others pay the price for our comfort and security.

JB: In assessing the impacts of climate change, and to assign responsibility, analysts use calculations to weigh and measure the relative causes and effects. In advance of such sums, you argue that early industrialised countries should take steps now towards poverty alleviation in countries that are likely suffering the worst of climate change effects. This would go some way to taking responsibility before the calculations are complete. Do you believe that such actions can truly be understood as a ‘desire to be just’ or could they be construed as self-serving? When it comes to the asymmetries of economies, environments and responsibilities, do you think passion, care and desire are realisable goals?

NC: I like the idea of a certain simplicity, almost naivety, that characterizes the event of getting caught up in a problem, the raw experience of being moved and feeling that one has to respond, somehow. Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than this.

Ultimately, it’s probably impossible to separate out a desire to be fair to others – other people, other species – from self interest. Even the most ardent theorists of responsibility or care or love or hospitality recognise that you have to look after yourself, keep your own house maintained, in order that you have the wherewithal to help others.

Its also the case that those of us who are in a position to offer help to others worse off might one day be in need of help ourselves (my favourite scene in the otherwise dire `Day After Tomorrow’ was the one where desperate US Americans are splashing across the Rio Grande to make it into Mexico). Those who find themselves in need of hospitality or care often welcome the chance to turn the tables and be in a position to help others. This actually happened after Hurricane Katrina, when some displaced New Orleanians in Dallas had an opportunity to help out people from Galveston and Houston on the run from Hurricane Rita. Any crisis or catastrophe is a reminder that no-one’s `being-at-home’ is ever fully secure.

Whether passion, care or desire is something to aim for, rather than something that just happens is a tricky one. What’s important to me is that there is an awful lot of care and generosity going on the world all around us (though often under-recognised or unequally acknowledged – as Rosalyn Diprose points out). And this care or generosity is not only toward those who are closest to home. Responses to the Indian Ocean Tsunami or the Haiti Earthquake and many more enduring forms of solidarity and assistance suggest that many people already care a great deal about the suffering or the injustice of very distant others. For sure, we need to look critically at big global events of compassion, but not so critically that we discount what is most hopeful and promising about them. So for me, it’s about working up and finding new avenues for sensibilities that are not necessarily in short supply.

JB: The abrupt climate change thesis suggests that the climate may go over a threshold to sudden, runaway and unstoppable transition. Such a tipping point would create, you suggest, “a set of impossible situations”. The effects become disproportional to the cause and the very terms of the debate, the ability even to do calculations of equivalence, will likely be thrown into question. Is it possible to think of the progression of climate change differently, or to take the risk out of the notion of the threshold? What might be possible, or what might be the terms of the debate around climate change, if we did not have to contend with the spectre of sudden crisis?

NC: It has actually taken a great deal of effort, by scientists, campaigners (and belatedly social scientists) to get the idea of nonlinear or threshold transition climate change on the global climate governance agenda. For a long time, and with good reason, those tasked with `managing’ global climate change preferred to keep the problem to manageable proportions – which tended to mean assuming that change would be gradual. At the time, that was a radical enough message!

But now that tipping points are well and truly on the agenda – and part of the popular imagination – we need to be just as concerned about the effects of the `one almighty catastrophe’ storyline on deliberation and effective climate action. I think it is important to think of nonlinear changes in climate (or any other complex system) and gradual change/stability as being part of the same dynamics of any system, therefore inseparable aspects of the one story. Nonlinear change – going over a tipping point into a new state or regime – is actually very common and mundane. It is what happens when you fall asleep, fall ill, fall out of a canoe, fall in love, whatever. Or when an earthquake takes place or an ecosystem goes through a major transition. At least as far as I get the science!

So we need to think of linear and nonlinear changes – systems changing gradually and suddenly – as inseparable aspects of the `eventfulness’ that is going on around us, even within us, constantly – and at a range of spatial and temporal scales. I’m finding it helpful to follow climate scientist Tim Lenton and his colleagues and think in terms of multiple `tipping elements’ where climate is concerned. There are numerous tipping points that different aspects of global and regional climate systems may pass over, some more frightening than others. Moving in and out of stability is what climate systems do, and if these systems weren’t already changeable and precarious, our own contribution wouldn’t be so worrying.

JB: At the end of your talk you related a story about the way the Kiribati Islanders have encountered the lived experience of climate change. Do you see this example, or other alternative story lines, informing an alternative politics around climate change?

NC: Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas) is a group of very low-lying islands in the western Pacific that may well be one of the first places rendered uninhabitable by rising sea levels. The islands’ leaders have been petitioning other nations, so far – I believe – unsuccessfully, for a new homeland (though the late president of Zambia made a generous offer). Recently Kiribati made a pledge to set aside a vast area of their territorial waters – as a coral reef and deep ocean marine reserve. As a kind of parting gift to the world. When the economic downturn kicked in, and quite a few nations started reneging on some their environmental promises, Kiribati turned around and doubled the size of the marine reserve.

I don’t know a lot about this story, and it may well be the case that there is a degree of self interest in this gift. But whatever the case, I’m very curious and intrigued about it. What really interests me, at a time when climate politics is bogged down in cold, hard bargaining, that suddenly, here is a gesture that seems to break with the very logic of the economic (Kiribati Prime Minister Anote Tong is actually an economics graduate of the London School of Economics!). So, to return to my point about justice, this seems to me the kind of break with the logic of calculation, the kind of opening gesture that might potentially bring something new and unpredictable into the whole deadlocked machinery of climate justice and politics. Intriguing too, that such an immense offer (the area of ocean is about the size of California) should come from a country that, economically speaking, has so little.

Given that this is a planet and a physical universe where breaks of symmetry occur – where cause and effect are often disproportionate – gestures like this might turn out to have a special value. Perhaps not as the beginning of an alternative politics, but as another way in, another way of thinking about and energizing the politically progressive and ethically generous activity that is already taking place. Who knows? I’d like to know more about the Kiribati case, and I’d love to hear of any other stories which are similarly suggestive of a logic that is other-than-economic.

JB: Your book, Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet, will be published by Sage in December. Can you tell us a bit about what to expect?

NC: Well, there’s been a great deal of work in the social sciences over recent decades about the entanglement of humans with nonhuman things. Most of this work focuses on what we might `do differently’, or arrangements we might change or recompose. I wanted to set out from the nonhuman (or inhuman) things that we can’t realistically do or enact or compose differently. Or rather, from forces and processes that will do or compose themselves differently no matter what we do. Basically I’m interested in earth or cosmic processes – which seem to have attracted a lot less attention lately than other aspects of the nonhuman such as technology or animals or life more generally.

So I’m asking what it means – for human social life and embodied existence – to be living on a planet that from time to time throws some pretty serious physical challenges our way. And I ask, what if we viewed the stresses and surprises that arise from dynamical earth processes not simply as events that happen to pre-existing bodies or communities or societies, but as forces that have helped make us what we are. What if floods and fires, earthquakes and tsunamis, natural climate change and outbreaks of disease have always been, and still are, formative or constitutive aspects of `sociable life’.

I’m not just concerned with the scary things an earth in upheaval can do to vulnerable, soft-bodied creatures – I’m also interested in the ways that ordinary people cope with demanding situations, how they may (or may not) come together over physical challenges, reach out to others, offer assistance, form or remake communities. I’m especially interested in ordinary acts of care, generosity and hospitality, and how these often show up with particular intensity in times of extreme physical stress. So I’m asking how we might build on, work up these `dispositions’ in relation to a planet that, as earth scientists have been telling us for more than half a century, is a lot more variable and volatile than most of us imagine. The book has a nice cover image too – a shot of people gathered at the Eyjafjallajökull volcano that reminds me of the rather happy way I liked to draw hell when I got sent to Sunday school.

Nigel Clark is Senior Lecturer in Geography at the Open University, UK. He is co-editor of Material Geographies (2008) and Extending Hospitality: Giving Space, Taking Time (2009) and is currently completing a book on the ethical implications of inhabiting a physically volatile planet. [email:]

Jennifer Barth is a Researcher for the TCS Website

Nigel’s lecture, ‘Beyond Justice? The Radical Asymmetries of Climate Change’ was presented at the Department of Geography, King’s College, London on 19th October, 2010.

His article, ‘Volatile Worlds, Vulnerable Bodies: Confronting Abrupt Climate Change’ was published in the TCS Special Issue on Changing Climates (vol 27, issue 2/3). You can read his article, and the rest of the issue, here

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