Nigel Clark: Beyond Justice? The Radical Asymmetries of Climate Change

Photo: Nigel Clark

Nigel Clark’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. We interviewed him about it last week, and now Nigel has agreed to let us reproduce the full text of his lecture exclusively on the TCS Blog.

Read more on the desire for justice, the importance of the body in our ‘learning to be affected’ by climate change, and on the possibility of asymmetrical gestures

Beyond Justice? The Radical Asymmetries of Climate Change

Introduction: The Dilemmas of Climate Politics

This talk sets out from the current impasse in global climate politics, and explores some ways of working with and through some of the more troubling prospects on the near horizon. Starting with the question of global climate justice and the sticking point of the North/South divide, I examine both the necessity and the limitations of working with models of justice that hinge on apportioning culpability and calculating costs and benefits. Turning to the possibility of passing over thresholds or tipping points in major environmental systems, I look at the challenge this poses to a calculating model of justice, along with the risks of both self-defeating fatalism and self-serving regional securitization that attend `catastrophic’ scenarios. In the interests of considering what else we might do with the concept and possibility of large scale nonlinear climate change, I take a turn to the deep history of hominid and human experience of extreme climatic variability, and ask how an understanding of past climatic upheavals might inform and inspire the quest for climate justice – and help push it beyond the `symmetries’ of cause/effect and cost/benefit.

As most of us probably agree, global climate change politics is at an impasse.

It’s deadlocked for a number of reasons, and at a number of junctures, despite what is now fairly broad agreement on the fundamental causal factors and the severity of the problem. At the same time, there is escalating concern with the possibility of passing over a threshold – into an entirely different global climatic regime. The ideas in this talk are not so much an attempt at a solution, but more of a provocation, in keeping with a sense that right now we ought to be multiplying narratives, in the faint hope that some of them might catch on. It feels like the time to gamble on some of the less obvious storylines….

Today, across the political and cultural spectrum, there is little dissenting from the view that the problem of human-induced climate change demands a prodigious arithmetic: an accounting that fuses the inordinate complexities of modelling the earth’s climate with the no-less-daunting auditing of human activity past and present. And there is broad agreement that a frightening amount hinges on how we do these sums. As biologist-turned-climate change commentator Tim Flannery puts it: `Never in the history of humanity has there been a cost-benefit analysis that demands greater scrutiny’ (2005: 170).

Environmentalist thinkers of my generation and older will be aware of the profound tensions attending this calculus. When I was first reading about environmental issues as an undergrad in the late 70s, ecological radicalism was characterised by a form of cultural critique that was deeply suspicious of anything that looked like a `technocratic’ or `instrumental’ approach to nature. Although important strands of environmental thought and practice were informed by physical science there was suspicion over relying on scientific authority, and especially about any stress on calculation – for this could be seen as reducing nature to a standing reserve, an object of manipulation and control. In other words, it risked complicity with the values or imperatives that had got us into the ecological crisis in the first place.

Over subsequent decades, most radical environmentalists or political ecologists have learned to make compromises, to recognise the inescapable importance of modelling earth processes – particularly in the context of climate change. But there is still a deep unease about reducing natural processes to numeric values. Even the much vaunted overcoming of the so-called society-nature binary now calls out for compromises. For if we are to think about environmental justice on a global scale – in the context of climate change – we need to be able to apportion responsibility. And that means attempting to disentangle human influences or `forcings’ of the earth’s climate from natural forcings: a task which both physical and social scientists know to be fraught, if not impossible.

That earlier version of the critique of instrumental rationality has itself been interrogated: with critics revealing that at its core lies a romanticised view of a single, stable and harmonious nature, and an ideal that an `authenticity’ comes from closeness or oneness with this nature. Over the intervening years, engagements with post-structural thought – and especially the work of Foucault – have encouraged critical thinkers to replace the idea of a monolithic and disparaged rationality with a sense of different kinds or regimes of rationality, and to see prevailing visions of nature in the light of these modes or regimes of ordering. Foucault and his many interpreters also helped instil a new understanding of the way that certain conjunctions of truth and power worked their effects through and on the human body: by way of forms of normativization and disciplining that served to channel bodily potentialities in narrow and constraining ways – and eventually came to be internalised and policed by the very subjects that they helped shape.

This brings us back to the dilemma of contemporary environmental thought and practice. Modelling the earth’s climate and all the social processes that contribute to climate change starts to look like Foucault’s `pan-optical’ gaze writ large. Moreover, the idea of a fundamental need to restrain harmful human activities, and the resulting call for moderation and self discipline – and a channelling of the energies of human bodies and the earth itself in more careful and less exuberant ways – also has uncomfortable overtones of the processes Foucault held up to scrutiny.

So, in a sense, there is a newer `poststructuralist’ version of that tension about `instrumentalizing’ nature that an earlier generation of ecological radicals experienced. Only this time round, critical thought tends to line up against discipline and self-restraint, and to take the side of excess, transgression and boundary-blurring, to affirm bodies that overflow with potentialities rather than bodies which need to delimit their self-expression. And this means that, alongside a shared desire not to reduce the world to a series of exchange relations – there are some real divisions between ecological radicalism and certain prevailing styles of cultural-political radicalism. To take just one example, think of the celebration of mobility in Hardt and Negri’s Empire (2001) – and the vexed question of how this might be equated with needs to reduce energy global consumption.

It is this dilemma of how to acknowledge real environmental limits at the same time as affirming the `excessive’ potentiality of embodied subjects that I want to address – and find ways through. My question is how can we think through the current environmental predicament in ways that don’t return us to forms of self restraint, discipline – that (as Max Weber long ago pointed out) helped precipitate the kinds of economic growth that got us into trouble in the first place. How do we negotiate between excess and restraint, exuberance and self limitation – in ways that are just and equitable? Or at least, how might we do this in ways that don’t lurch between grand-scale visions of apocalypse and inward-looking visions of securitization and selfishness that too often prevail in current engagements with climate?

Beyond the Symmetries of Justice

In the recent Climate of Injustice, Timmons Roberts and Bradley Parks give an account of the current deadlock in climate change negotiation. The main sticking point, they argue, is the issue of justice and equality on a planetary scale. The `global South’ knows itself to be at once less responsible for climate change, more vulnerable, and less equipped for mitigation (Roberts and Parks, 2007: 7, 97). How to deal with this asymmetry, in a context in which limiting overall carbon emissions seems to preclude the world’s less developed economies from following pathways of industrial modernization taken by more developed nations, is a problem so deep and complex that no workable solution currently exists.

To break the `North-South deadlock’ before the planet’s climate system passes over an irreversible `tipping point’, Roberts and Parks argue, will take a much greater commitment to justice and equality on the part of the North than it has yet demonstrated. Even when the fundamental injustice of the present predicament is acknowledged, responses have thus far tended to be slow, self-serving, parsimonious, and deeply conditional (2007: 221-5). At the close of a clearheaded and sober analysis of the prospects of working through the North-South stalemate in global climate policy, Roberts and Parks come round to the idea that the west must show that it truly `cares about poverty’ (2007: 232).

To begin to do this, they suggest, would require the west to make certain overtures: gestures that are not simply about what is owed, about liabilities or blame that is proven, but that imply an opening that says we care about the predicament of the rest of the world. What caught my attention was the way that this swing away from the prioritizing of relations of reciprocity, calculativity and equivalence in discourses of climate justice chimes with Jacques Derrida’s claim that for justice to come anywhere near to attainment it must, above all, be desired (1992: 25). Even the most assiduous calculation and tallying, he urges, is never enough: whoever is in the position to pursue justice must care – deeply, passionately – for those who suffer injustice. Calculative decisions – Derrida argues – are absolutely necessary. We must do our sums. But calculative justice will keep falling short, allow itself to be stymied, diverted, diminished – unless there is an impetus that comes from being moved by the plight of others. An opening, that is, not an exchange.

Modern justice – as is usually noted – rests on axioms of equivalence: it’s about equal or impartial treatment of all who come before the law. And it requires calculation: the working out of what has been done by whom and to whom, and what is therefore owed to restore the balance. In this way, justice presupposes a closed system, one in which nothing is permitted to enter the circuit which is too different or too strange to be weighed up and nothing comes out the other end which was not anticipated or cannot be accounted for. Nietszche was particularly attentive to the specific circumstances under which the concept of justice operates. `Justice (fairness) originates among approximately equal powers’, he observed, `…the initial character of justice is barter ….justice is requital and exchange on the assumption of approximately equal positions of strength’ (1994, 1st 1878: 64).

Derrida’s insistence on an originary `asymmetry’ both builds upon and troubles this more conventional understanding of the working of justice. It points to a move beyond justice, or perhaps a more expanded sense of what we might mean by justice. As certain genres of ethical philosophy teach us, generosity, care, responsibility and love tend to begin with an opening to others, a unilateral gesture. But so too Derrida is telling us, does justice, the law, a sense of what is right and fair. Even before we set out on the quest for fairness, before the premise of equal powers, there must be some kind of overture towards those who are in need of justice. While ethical philosophy – especially in its deconstructive mode – often recognises the generative importance of such an opening, it’s interesting to me to find Roberts and Parks arriving at a similar understanding of the need to break out of the closed circuit of exchange – from such a different starting point.

I want to suggest that this movement between excess and equivalence, between symmetry and asymmetry, though important in many contexts, has a particular resonance in the context of climate change. This is not just because of the severity of the problem, or the depth of the impasse it has reached, but because of the asymmetries of the climate system itself.

Most negotiations over carbon emissions, hinge on the assumption that there is a fundamental equivalence of units: a Chinese ton of carbon equals an American ton, today’s ton equals tomorrows ton, and so on. But this premise is rendered problematic by emergent understandings of the way that the dynamics of the global climate involves effects that are way out of proportion to any cause,

In just a few years, the idea of a tipping point, a threshold beyond which climate change veers irreversibly into an alternative regime, has become one of the key concepts in the scientific, political and popular understanding of environmental change. The significance of the tipping point lies in the dynamics of complex systems. Because of the very nature of feedback effects in such systems, there is a point up to which the system can absorb changes in input with little visible change. This means that a major impetus to climate change might lie dormant in the system for centuries, millennia or longer before its impact is manifest. But the other side of this non-linearity is that once a certain threshold is passed, change is suddenly amplified, such that a relatively small stimulus can give rise to a large transformation – a change that is sudden, dramatic and effectively irreversible.

As research elaborates on the theme of nonlinear or `catastrophic’ changes in the Earth’s subsystems there has been a shift in emphasis away from one almighty climatic upheaval towards a more nuanced understanding of `tipping elements’, which embraces other possibilities, such as small perturbations resulting in major but gradual change (Lenton et al, 2008). But at whatever scale we encounter them, the idea of nonlinear transitions troubles the concepts of equivalence and symmetry on which negotiations over climate have so far depended. As a New Economics Foundation and Ecologist essay competition aptly put it: `How do you price the extra tonne of carbon that, once burned, tips the balance and triggers potentially catastrophic, irreversible global warming?” (NEF 2009)

Even economist William Nordhaus – pioneer of the application of cost-benefit analysis to climate change – has gone on record saying: `once we open the door to consider catastrophic changes a whole new debate is engaged’ (cited in Meyer, 2000: 54). Likewise, in relation to a switching off of the North Atlantic thermohaline, climatologist William J Burroughs announces that `the economic consequences would be unimaginable’ (2001: 273). Christian Azar and Kristian Lindgren explain, there are still major difficulties when it comes to assigning probabilities to events.

Add in the challenge of allocating actual costs to environmental and social catastrophes – which spread across countries with great differentials in income and call for the assignment of dollar values to such non-market eventualities as loss of life or destruction of biodiversity – the result is a situation where `the uncertainty about the impacts is so large that basically any optimal outcome can be justified’ (2003: 253).

Thinking through Catastrophic Shifts

How then might we begin to think about the possibilities of shifts between climatic regimes in ways that exceed prevailing models of justice, but don’t simply lapse into apocalyptical fatalism – or perhaps worse still, self serving and potentially conflictual forms of environmental securitization? How can we think through the asymmetries of climate change in ways that might bolster and inspire the quest for climate justice – rather than undermine it? There is, of course, no easy answer. But my suggestion is that one way to do so is to pay much more attention to previous regime shifts – over the course of our long term human and hominid history.

A lot of critical social thought and progressive campaigning has shied away from the deep temporal aspects of climate change – which are so crucial to the physical science and paleo-anthropological engagement with climate. Quaternary science provides us with increasingly detailed understandings of climatic instability – the movement in and out of glacial and interglacial episodes within the long quaternary ice age – and its impact on the human species and our hominid kin. This is not the place to go into the details of how we became the species we are. But there is a more general story about the precariousness of long term human (and hominid) existence – a question of what we might owe those who came before us – that might bring an added impetus to the pursuit of climate justice. (There are undeniable dangers too, in trying to think about climate justice through long term climatic instability. We risk fuelling arguments that because all this has happened many times before we ought not to berate ourselves for the current human forcing of climate, and the rather less dubious argument that previous bouts of climate change involved transitions to cooler rather than hotter regimes – and are thus irrelevant to the present predicament).

The point I want to make is that a greater understanding of what our distant ancestors endured to make it through previous episodes of large-scale, and often abrupt or catastrophic climate change, points to another fundamental asymmetry: the immense and incalculable `debt’ that we owe those bodies who came before us. In this way I draw in particular on feminist theorists of ethics and embodiment. Rosalyn Diprose’s writings on corporeal generosity, Elizabeth Grosz’s engagements with evolutionary theory, and Judith Butler’s thoughts on indebtedness to others – each help us understand our own embodied selves as the outcomes of long chains of bodies which have `gifted’ to us the potentials, the capacities, the aptitudes we take to be our own.

An understanding of the deep temporal dimensions of climate change puts the stress on just how remarkable it is that this relay of bodies has endured, unbroken, reminding us that we are, all of us, the lucky ones, even amongst our own species. Speaking of bouts of abrupt climate, evolutionary psychologist William Calvin muses: ‘Our ancestors lived through hundreds of such episodes – but each became a population bottleneck, one that eliminated most of their relatives. We are the improbable descendants of those survived – and later thrived’ (2002, 3). It’s worth adding, too, that of the dozens of species of hominids that are known to have existed prior to or alongside Homo sapiens sapiens, we are the single surviving branch that endured.

It is this sense of `improbable’ endurance – and the vast, incalculable debt that we might see as accompanying it – that I am suggesting might nourish the `passion’ for climate justice, with regards to both justice for generations to come and for current generations who live in other places. Here, it’s worth adding to Derrida’s thoughts on `caring’ for justice Foucault’s musings on the link between curiosity and care. In a 1980 interview, Foucault spoke, rather poetically, of dreaming of `a new age of curiosity’. As he put it:

Curiosity …evokes “care”; it evokes the care one takes of what exists and might exist; a sharpened sense of reality …a readiness to find what surrounds us strange and odd …a passion for seizing what is happening now and what is disappearing’ (1988: 328)

With regard to the climate change crisis, I am proposing that `paleo-stories’ of the long and fraught journeys that every line of human beings has taken to arrive at their current destination might help us `learn to be affected’ by the plight of contemporary others, and others yet to come, in the face of the climatic changes on the horizon. And indeed, the ethos of `care and curiosity’ that Foucault spoke of is perhaps already present at international climate change forums, in the global movements of solidarity over climate injustice, in much of the research, activism and theory that already engages so many concerned global citizens.

This is also a call to bring the body – in all its complex temporalizations, its potentialities and its vulnerabilities – into the arenas of climate negotiation.

For good reason there is an insistence on a certain kind of impartiality, on equality before the law that prevails in most forums of global governance and international tribunals that convene around the issue of climate change. But at the same time, the body in its sensuousness and affective specificities, its diverse histories and attachments, is already present in climate negotiations – in the guise of those who bear witness to the impact of climate change on their homes, their livelihoods their worlds. Now that this window is opened – we might ask how much more of the body we might let in. And we might in this way encourage more curiosity and care – not just for what collective and individual bodies are enduring now, but also for how they came to be where they are now, what they are now. More of a certain `desire’, we might say, for what has been and what might still come.

But this same sense of care and curiosity, this allowing of ourselves to be affected by the predicament of others, is not only an incitement to justice – and all the calculative relations implied by justice. It is also an incitement to hospitality. Which might be seen as an alternative (though not an opposite) to more restrictive forms of ecological securitization. If there is widespread and serious dislocation – and certainly many small islands and low-lying states are already beginning to act as though it is inevitable – we will need to rethink the system of sovereign sates, and the already fraught issue of how we welcome, acknowledge, and live alongside ‘strangers’.

At its best, where it has an element of unconditionality, hospitality is always asymmetrical – as ethical philosophers have often noted. Whatever rules and restrictions might be applied, whatever regulations it demands, hospitality worthy of the name begins with an opening, a welcome, an offering of assistance – even before any check to see if the `guest’s’ papers are in order, if they are `deserving’ of an invitation. Hospitality, in other words, like Roberts and Parks’s call for an overture from the North to the South, pivots on an offer that does not await the verdicts, the judgements, the assessments of deservedness that depend on calculation.

Again, this may not be as new or as alien to current climate politics as it first appears. Elsewhere, if we take a second look at some of the more searching attempts to apportion responsibility and make amends for global climate change, these too seem at risk of edging over a threshold of calculability and dropping into unfathomable depths. Aubrey Meyer’s principle of contraction and convergence, for example, while hinging on the absolute equitability of allocating every person on the earth the right to the same quantity of carbon emissions, in practice calls for a dramatic reduction in the non-renewable energy use of the most industrialised populations. Likewise, current proposals to address the `ecological debt’ owed by early industrializing regions to the rest of the world for their historical use of fossil fuels imply `a fundamental realignment of who owes whom in the international economy’ – and in this way point towards a massive global redistribution of wealth.

For all their anchoring in a conventional model of justice, what makes such proposals start to resonate with the sort of `radical asymmetry’ I’ve been talking about – at a global scale – is that the overcoming of current differentials in wealth is not presented as a prelude for a fully universal resumption of growth. It is more in the manner of a once and for all blow-out of western prosperity: a power-down impelled by a sense that the imminence of catastrophic climate change makes a mockery of existing economic axioms. What’s more to the point is that such fantasies of mass, unilateral dissipation of industrial riches are no rare thing amongst environmentally-conscious radicals. Indignation over the ecological-economic injustices of the current world order certainly drives a great deal of thought and activism. In other words, if a well-computed sense of global injustice is already present amongst many activists and researchers, this seems to be propelled by an incalculable `passion’ for change.

Concluding Remarks: Small Islands of Hope

So far, you may have assumed (correctly) that what I’ve been talking about is mostly offers from the most privileged parts of the world to those who are most under threat and seemingly least equipped to deal with adaptation to climate change. But one of the things we ought to be attuned to when we are dealing with asymmetrical gestures – in all their fundamental rupture with calculativity – is the element of surprise. We should not presume to know where they are going to come from and who they are going to be addressed to in advance of the event of an overture or a welcoming.

By way of a conclusion, I want to look briefly at one example of an asymmetrical offer: one about which I only know the bare bones of the story, but which I find intriguing. The nation of Kiribati (pronounced `Kiribas’) comprises thirty three atolls and corral islands, none reaching more than a couple of meters above sea level, which leaves the entire population of some 100,000 people deeply endangered by predicted sea level rises. Indeed, it is widely accepted that because of thermal inertia, the way that water takes longer to heat up than air but holds its heat for longer, Kiribati and many other low-lying regions may already be doomed by existing levels of global warming. As Kiribati President Anote Tong put it recently: `We may be at the point of no return”, before adding, `to plan for the day when you no longer have a country is indeed painful but I think we have to do that’ (cited in Marks, 2008). Tong’s announcement, made at the 2008 UN World Environment Day in Wellington, was intended to put pressure on Australia and New Zealand to accept his people for permanent resettlement – as yet unsuccessfully

At a 2006 UN biodiversity conference, Kiribati pledged to set aside a huge area of its national waters as a new marine reserve, one which would encompass some of the planet’s richest coral reef ecosystems as well as being the only significant stretch of deep ocean under protection. Later, during an economic downturn in which many other nation-states began skimping or reneging on their environmental obligations, Kiribati unexpectedly announced a doubling in the size of the designated zone – bringing the reserve up to 410,500 square kilometres – around the size of California – making it the world’s largest maritime protected area (see Fogarty, 2008). As President Tong said of the decision: `It was an opportunity to make that last stand. It was our contribution to humanity’ (cited in Whitney, 2008).

Next to the parsimonious and instrumental parleying that still predominates in global climate change politics, Kiribati’s exorbitant bequeathing of oceanic-estate breathes a new logic. The gesture is unlikely to be entirely devoid of self interest, but there’s something deeply provocative about responding to the prospect of territorial loss with an ever bigger territorial give away: a perpetual endowment that trumps protectionism or securitization. It is, in the terms I have been using, a radical break with symmetry.

So I want to conclude by coming back to that tension between, on the one hand excess, exuberance, exorbitance, and on the other, well-calculated justice and the sort of restraint, or self-limitation that global environmental issues also call out for. I’ve been suggesting that there are already moves afoot towards a kind of radical asymmetry that at once breaks with the belief in exchange of equivalents that underpins justice, but also makes justice possible. Any break with symmetry is a kind of ex-orbitance, a breaking out of the circle of what is known, expected, and already understood well enough to be tallied and calculated.

In this way generous acts of symmetry-breaking hint at a kind of responsibility that at once expresses a kind of radical self-limitation – in that it makes an offering and opening to others even at the expense of one’s own security and self-interest – at the same time as its very riskiness, its uncertainty, its embrace of what is strange and unfamiliar is also a kind of excessiveness. This is the possibility, then, that interests and intrigues me: that there is something way beyond what we conventionally mean by justice, which is at once excessive and restrained, exorbitant and care-ful. In acts of hospitality – the opening to the stranger or those who have been estranged – or in the radical generosity of Kiribati – what we glimpse is an opening that is without foreseeable end. And this is where we might see hints of a pathway towards global climate justice: of a kind that is neither wholly reliant on calculation, nor concedes to the grimmer attractions of apocalyptic thinking.


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Flannery, T. (2005) The Weather Makers: the history and future impact of climate change. London: Allen Lane.

Fogarty, D. (2008) “ Kiribati creates world’s largest marine reserve”, Reuters UK (February 14) .

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Marks, K. (2008) “Paradise lost: climate change forces South Sea islanders to seek sanctuary abroad”, Independent, (6 June),

Meyer, A. (2000) Contraction and Convergence. The Global Solution to Climate Change. Devon: Green Books.

New Economics Foundation (2009) ` the nef / Ecologist essay competition: What price carbon? Email Ruth Pots, NEF 27/4/09.

Nietzsche, F. (1994, 1st 1878: 64) Human, all too Human. London. Penguin.

Roberts, J. T. and Parks, B. 2007. A Climate of Injustice, Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Whitney, N. (2008) `Kiribati Leader Cites Toll of Climate Change’, The Harvard Crimson, (September 23) (accessed 6/01/10).

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:]

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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