The Climate Movement: What’s Next?

July 9, 2019

The uncertain future of Earth’s climate depends on whether negative or positive feedback loops dominate. While we know that also complex (and partly unknown) rhythmics and negative feedback loops play a role, the evidence strongly suggests that global warming is now accelerating through multiple self-reinforcing mechanisms. For example, the melting of ice in the Polar Regions contributes to global warming because sea ice reflects much of the sun’s energy back into space, while dark water absorbs it. Hence, there is no automatic planetary homeostasis, at least not in the human scales of time. The stability of climate requires reflexive self-regulation consciously aiming at homeostasis. The planetary future does not just happen but has become increasingly something that ‘we’ make of it. But who is this ‘we’?

Our political imagination remains captive of state sovereignty. This is especially paradoxical with regard to the climate movement. Global warming transforms the entire planet. No part of the planet is separable from the rapidly changing conditions, though it is also true that the effects of climate change may be very uneven. While the climate movement is often vague on the required scale of actions, ‘the economy’ still usually means the national economy. Political memory revolves around national political history. Proposed reforms or transformations tend to concern only one country at a time. The EU may have been relatively progressive in climate politics, but it too lacks adequate means to tackle the problem. Some advocate deglobalization and return to the national-local communities.

The current situation evokes a new round of debate about the merits of piecemeal reforms versus radical transformation. In the 21st century this debate would have to address an evolving planetary totality consisting of many closely related and constantly changing parts. It comprises not only a diversity of territorial states within the liberal-capitalist world economy, but also various international and global institutions, from international law and power-balancing to elements of global constitutionalism and forms of global economic and ecological governance.

Climate change can add to existential insecurity triggering social-psychological mechanisms that strengthen regressive reactions or, alternatively, generate stories that may be taken by some to justify violence.

A key reason for why proper global governance – or government – is needed is that individual state-actions and world markets are often poor in preventing unnecessary, unneeded and unwanted worldwide developments from happening. World markets and separate states can easily generate economic crises and downturns or global warming or other unsustainable developments, which in turn can have far-reaching political consequences. A world economy that rests on traditional orthodox economic liberal doctrines and their neoliberal variants is easily driven to one-sided and parochial reactions and counter-reactions – as demonstrated by the current rise of nationalist-populist movements. The problem is that climate change can add to existential insecurity, thereby triggering social-psychological mechanisms that can, on one side, strengthen regressive counter-reactions or, alternatively, generate stories that may be taken by some to justify radical actions in terms of violence.

Anthropogenic climate change is a social and political problem. It concerns human beings in social relations who have needs and ideals that must be met to a sufficient degree, otherwise policies and institutions are unlikely to be legitimate. On the other hand, without legitimate and well-functioning common institutions, it is difficult to take action against underdevelopment, uneven industrialization or growth, or global accumulation of privileges and power – all of which may be self-reinforcing processes in the absence of proper countervailing responses. What is more, negative self-reinforcing processes can trigger and intensify conflicts among states, leading to securitization, arms-race and wars. The social world involves both virtuous and vicious circles.

Global-Keynesian theory exemplifies a cosmopolitan moral perspective and implies major institutional transformations.

Reforms can be designed to bring about cumulative causation and, over time in an evolutionary fashion, fundamental transformations. A global-Keynesian approach is not only compatible with environmental concerns (in sharp contrast to mainstream neoliberal economics); it is also transformative vis-à-vis the existing states-system. According to the holistic perspective of Keynesian political economy, economic developments, and especially the formation of effective aggregate demand, are seen from the standpoint of all actors and countries at once. The conditions in which actions are taken are understood to form a whole, in which parts are mutually dependent. Global-Keynesian theory exemplifies a cosmopolitan moral perspective and implies major institutional transformations.

Morality requires sufficient universalizability across different contexts, concerns and interests. The aim of various versions of the universalization principle is to help in locating norms that can be accepted by different parties irrespective of race, gender, age, nationality, world-view, or even present conditions. This requires global public forums where worldviews, institutions and policies can be discussed and decisions taken. Critical dialogue must be kept open and going for centuries and millennia to come. The openness and continuity of our learning process is a condition of rationality. Thus valid norms may, and often also must, take into account future generations, bearing in mind that the meaning of our being and actions depends on how the future will turn out. We are part of large-scale processes; and the world is in a state of becoming.

Global taxes would constitute a breakthrough in political and legal principles.

The Paris 2015 agreement involves only voluntary commitments. In contrast, consider the possibility of a global greenhouse gas tax along the lines of global Keynesianism. A tax can generate substantial public revenue that can be used for purposes of common good and global redistribution, also to tackle the sources of global warming and to compensate for its effects. A carbon tax is relatively simple and can be easily specified in a fairly short legal text (whereas e.g. the cap-and-trade proposals are much more complicated). Taxes have broad effects. For instance, a carbon tax extends to all carbon-based fuel consumption, including gasoline, home heating oil and aviation fuels. The scope of greenhouse gas taxes is wide and covers comprehensively different sources of emissions. A further advantage of the tax is that it offers a permanent incentive to reduce emissions. Global funds of sufficient size would enable global public policy, including investment programmes in new technologies and planetary reforestation.

Global taxes could be extended to other areas, for instance to make global transportation more expensive, thus favouring sustainable local activities and production but by means of building global common institutions. From a global Keynesian perspective, the potential redistributive effects of taxes seem especially important. Global taxes and their revenues could also be used to steer and regulate economic activities across the planet. The basic global green Keynesian idea is to facilitate the transition to post-fossil fuels economy and shape the direction, composition, distribution and speed of economic growth towards more sustainable and equitable paths. Global funds could also be used to acquire large areas of land for forests and wildlife, as part of our responsibility for the guardianship of Earth. This approach can be complemented by other approaches, such as education and out-phasing and banning various substances and processes.

Profit-motive – currently justifying greed and corporate power – must give way to better aims.

Global taxes would constitute a breakthrough in political and legal principles. What is critically important is that measures such as global taxation cannot be legitimate in the absence of considerations of justice and democracy. Justice as fairness implies that it is unfair if someone accepts the benefits of a practice or practices but refuses to do his part in maintaining them. A further problem is that those who are likely to suffer the most from climate change have often benefitted the least from the practices and development of global industrial civilization. World democratic polycentrism means that different actors and sites of power can be democratised in spite of absence of central government. Instead of a simple model of cosmopolitan democracy, what emerges is a vision of an open-ended process of global democratization.

It goes without saying that green global Keynesianism would only be a moment in the process of world history, but as such it would be an important transformative moment, giving hope about our future prospects while enabling further emancipatory transformations. This moment could also facilitate the much needed shift in our values from growth or per capita incomes toward much more important elements of the good life (as was envisaged in Keynes’s 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”). Profit-motive – currently justifying greed and corporate power – must give way to better aims. The future belongs to those ‘who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life’. ‘We shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful.’

Geongineering would require totally unprecedented levels of trust and cooperation on a global scale.

And yet we have to be prepared also for the worst. Perhaps it is already too late to turn the process of climate change in any economically and politically feasible terms within the required time frame? Perhaps in ten or twenty years’ time it will become increasingly obvious that in addition to all other possible means, also some highly risky and problematic technical forms of geoengineering might be necessary? Those solutions would require totally unprecedented levels of trust and cooperation on a global scale. This is particularly so if they require extensive access to orbit and outer space – not the least because any such system implies potential for military use. The uncertain effects of geoengineering might also be spread in a highly uneven manner.

Global cooperation requires legitimate and functional common institutions. Our fates are inextricably connected. We need to scale up our political imagination and tell better stories about who we are, where we are coming from, and what our goals in the wider scheme of things may be.

Heikki Patomäki


Further readings, popular:
(1) “Climate Change and its Effects on Global Industrial Civilization: What’s Next?”, a written joint interview with Professor Graciela Chichilnisky; interviewers Marcus Rolle and C.J. Polychroniou; Global Policy 17 Oct 2016, available here.
(2) “Our Future Depends on Learning”, in S.Waslekar & I.Futehally (eds.) Big Questions of Our Time. The World Speaks, Strategic Foresight Group: Mumbai, 2016, p.102; available here.
(3) “Democratic Global Keynesianism: A Long-Overdue Vision of Progressive Politics”, Social Europe 22.1.2014, available here.
(4) “Kasvihuonekaasuvero hidastaisi ilmastonmuutosta” [A Greenhouse Gas Tax Would Slow down Climate Change], Helsingin Sanomat 25.10.2013, available here (in Finnish).
Further readings, academic:
(5) “Mythopoetic Imagination as a Source of Critique and Reconstruction: Alternative Storylines about Our Place in Cosmos”, Journal of Big History, forthcoming in (3):4, 2019. Download here (early conference version).
(6) Disintegrative Tendencies in Global Political Economy: Exits and Conflicts, Routledge (Focus): London and New York, 2018 (paperback forthcoming in August 2019; details here).
(7) “On the Possibility of a Global Political Community: The Enigma of ‘Small Local Differences’ within Humanity”, Protosociology. An International Journal of Interdisciplinary Research (33), ‘Borders of Global Theory – Reflections from Within and Without’, 2017, pp.93-127. Download here.
(8) “Democracy in a Globalized World”, in K.Booth & T.Erskine (eds.) International Theory Today, Polity: Cambridge, 2016, pp.190-201. Download here (preprint version).
(9) “Social Imaginaries and Big History: Towards a New Planetary Consciousness?”, with M.Steger, Futures, (42):10, 2010, pp.1056–1063; download here.