Recent years have seen a new genre of journalism that reports on the emotional lives of climate scientists. Every day of their professional lives is given over to documenting extinctions, depletions, and disappearances. Many of those losses are already underway.1Rebecca Elliott, “The Sociology of Climate Change as a Sociology of Loss,” European Journal of Sociology 59, no. 3 (2018): 301–337. These scientists confront overwhelming evidence of an apocalypse unless we transform the economy and energy system. They are largely despairing both because of what they know, and how they are being ignored, dismissed, and even outright threatened.2Paul Robbins and Sarah A. Moore, “Ecological Anxiety Disorder: Diagnosing the Politics of the Anthropocene,” Cultural Geographies 20, no. 1 (2013): 3–19. And their gloomy mood has been amplified by a trend of catastrophist journalism that focuses overwhelmingly on the worst possible consequences of warming beyond the two-degree Celsius level.“At its best, critical social science is precisely organized around identifying and revealing alternatives to present, unequal power structures that shape our communities and ecologies.”
As critical social scientists who study climate change, we share in much of the worry of our climate scientist colleagues and their journalistic interpreters. As the geographer Michael Watts put it, “It bears repeating that we are in deep shit.”3Michael Watts, “All or Nothing?” Human Geography 8, no. 1 (2015): 109. But while we also work on climate change, our advantage lies in deconstructing the apparent nihilism of being stuck in feces. At its best, critical social science is precisely organized around identifying and revealing alternatives to present, unequal power structures that shape our communities and ecologies. This can be helpful for climate politics. With the natural science fundamentals settled (and terrifying), part of our project, as critical social scientists, is to deepen our understanding of why we have made so little progress in decarbonizing and adapting to extreme weather—and how we might do better. In this goal, we are aligned with our colleagues in climate science. Our critical analytical engagements also equip us to pose distinct and essential questions about how, and with what effects, this bundle of impacts we have come to know as climate change are managed as local and global problems. Our engagement can reveal the ambivalences and contradictions that climate politics have entailed, and pathways toward faster and more egalitarian carbon emissions reductions and adaptation efforts.
As critical social scientists, we’re unsettled in our own ways—emotionally, yes, but also methodologically and analytically. Here we reflect on the intellectual and political discomforts of studying climate change, and how these discomforts might be productive. Social scientific analysis and writing about climate change are uncomfortable because climate change challenges many of our basic analytic categories (e.g., geographic and temporal scale, structure and agency, epistemological pluralism) and our conventional relationships to politics. As social scientists who study the politics surrounding decarbonization and adaptation to climate change in a variety of sites (coastal Bangladesh, New York City, São Paulo), we have engaged in ongoing conversations over several years about how to articulate the unique social and political challenges in these different places within a broader global context. These conversations have led us to uncomfortable tensions between competing demands that arise from the insights and political commitments we have developed while working in our field sites. We believe that our discomforts are productive. They allow us to reject catastrophism and clarify possibilities for better futures.
Here, we specify two of the tensions driving our own discomfort: the entanglements of climate change and the engaged politics of climate change. There are undoubtedly more of them, and we invite other social scientists working on climate change to reflect on their own tensions (and the ways in which they are productive).
The entanglements of climate change
Let’s be clear: the climate science is brutal. Most models find that to keep warming at an only moderately catastrophic two-degree Celsius level will require breakneck decarbonization faster than any previous energy transition and large amounts of carbon sequestration (or “negative emissions”), which would depend on technologies that don’t exist. One can quibble with the models’ assumptions, including their presumption of capitalism inevitably remaining the dominant mode of economic production. But the last time there was this much carbon in the sky, horses and camels roamed the high arctic. Meanwhile, every day, we confront an insane series of ruptures that—depending on where you look, what you expect, and what your theory is—started in 1492,4→Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019).
→Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin, The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018). or with Hurricane Katrina or Typhoon Haiyan or Cyclone Idai. And the weather will only get worse. Avoiding unimaginably vast suffering implies massive and rapid transformation. Even then, levels of suffering could be immense. It’s impossible to imagine any phenomenon that will shape the future of human life more than carbon-fueled climate change.
The enormity of these threats, and the imperative to curb them, forces us to consider the exceptional and unprecedented urgency of climate change and its politics. Climate change touches everything. Studying how climate change is experienced in particular places and by particular communities demands that we grapple with how it is entangled with other forces, histories, and politics. This messiness often points us to unexpected, unconventional, and even contradictory allies.“In New York City, an investigation of climate change and its entanglement with urban housing politics points toward accidental climate movements, ones that suggest contentious and competing moral economies of climate change adaptation.”
For example, in New York City, an investigation of climate change and its entanglement with urban housing politics points toward accidental climate movements, ones that suggest contentious and competing moral economies of climate change adaptation. By “accidental movements” we mean movements that engage with the politics of climate change without claiming or intending to do so. Daniel Aldana Cohen identified these “accidental low-carbon protagonists” in the Crown Heights Tenant Union—a multiracial movement defending affordable housing and battling gentrification, struggling for an alternative vision of decent urban life distinct from elite green-certified dense (but high-consuming) housing developments in midtown Manhattan.5Daniel Aldana Cohen, “Petro Gotham, People’s Gotham,” in Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas, ed. Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Shapiro (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016). Today, another housing movement active in Crown Heights, New York Communities for Change, is anchoring a broad coalition on the verge of getting the country’s most aggressive low-energy building upgrade bill passed in the city council.
On the other hand, Rebecca Elliott identifies another kind of accidental climate public in “Stop FEMA Now,” a politically bipartisan coalition of floodplain homeowners formed to protest the rising costs of insuring flood risk in the context of increasingly frequent and turbulent extreme weather events and rising sea levels.6Rebecca Elliott, “Who Pays for the Next Wave? The American Welfare State and Responsibility for Flood Risk,” Politics & Society 45, no. 3 (2017): 415–440. The “Stop FEMA Now” activists are protesting changes to flood insurance policy that most economists would consider obvious policy improvements, since the higher prices would incentivize people to move away from dangerous flood zones (although in practice, the incentives would mainly force poorer households to move). If both of these coalitions are climate publics, even accidental ones, then what does that mean for constructing a coherent social science of urban climate politics? They indicate how the impacts and responses to climate change are deeply entangled with questions of housing equity, and the responsibilities of the state to address inequality. They also suggest radically different visions of who the victims of climate change are and who the subjects of climate justice could be.
This messiness creates both difficult analytical challenges as well as uncomfortable political ones. If any research subject can direct us to negative impacts of climate change, then we have to choose these carefully to stay focused on the impacts that concern us the most. Following standpoint theory,7Nancy C. M. Hartstock, “The Feminist Standpoint: Development the Ground for a Specifically Feminist Historical Materialism,” in Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science, ed. Sandra Harding and Merrill B. P. Hintikka (Boston: D. Reidel Publishing Co., 1983), 283–310. the perspectives we choose to research will have serious normative implications for how we understand climate change. While the environmental (and other) social sciences have investigated the uneven distribution of environmental impacts—along divisions of class, race, gender, national origin, and otherwise—climate change will have impacts that are both unevenly and universally distributed. Grappling with the cross-class impacts of climate change, Watts writes: “While climate change may be fundamentally grounded in the operations of capital, it is not a narrowly class phenomena. By which I mean everyone is vested in survivability. It is not a problem solely of the exploited classes.”8Watts, “All or Nothing?,” 110. See also Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Politics of Climate Change Is More Than the Politics of Capitalism,” Theory, Culture & Society 34, no. 2–3 (2017): 25–37. Of course, this is most true about the future—the worse climate change gets as time passes, the harder it will be for the affluent to defend themselves.
Depending on the particular place, the universalization of climate harms could take years, decades, or centuries, depending on all manner of policies and social projects. Yes, in the short-term, climate disruption’s economic wreckage will affect everyone—housing-insecure urban tenants and the property-owning upper middle class—but to different degrees and in different ways. When most climate campaigners talk about how this problem affects “everyone,” it is both true and untrue. We are unsettled by the analytic difficulties of reconciling short- and long-term temporalities and the implications they have for our conventional frameworks for understanding environmental inequalities.
The engaged politics of climate change
Many social scientists who study climate change are driven at least in part by political commitments—including us. We want a safer, more equal world. We want to work in partnership with people outside the academy who share those commitments, and these guide our research.
Climate social science troubles our commitments, both in the ordinary ways that complexity challenges pre-existing belief, and in the particular way that climate change’s tense timeline seems to compel. These political contradictions play out in two distinct but interrelated ways: through the uses (and abuses) of climate discourse to compel certain kinds of dispossession and unequal resource distribution, and the tensions between the ways in which strategies for addressing climate change have different and unequal impacts in different ecological and political economic contexts. We address each of these tensions in turn below.“Discourses about climate crisis can be used, in their more techno-scientific iterations, to depoliticize the historical social relations shaping the vulnerability of the poor and racialized, potentially exacerbating the unequal distribution of power.”
First, climate change is not only embedded with social and political relations that we need urgently to understand, but the idea of climate change is also a discursive battleground in political struggles. Specifically, discourses about climate crisis can be used, in their more techno-scientific iterations, to depoliticize the historical social relations shaping the vulnerability of the poor and racialized, potentially exacerbating the unequal distribution of power. Take Bangladesh, perhaps the global climate justice movement’s favorite example of a climate victim. There, local political activists are daily battling shrimp farming and agrarian-development policies that are lauded as necessary and inevitable adaptations to climate change.9Kasia Paprocki, “Threatening Dystopias: Development and Adaptation Regimes in Bangladesh,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 108, no. 4 (2018): 955–973. As Kasia Paprocki shows, the urgency of climate change is often used there as cover by local and global development elites who are pursuing ecologically and socially harmful forms of economic development. During a historic drought in São Paulo, the site of Cohen’s research, a conservative governor blamed climate change, when in fact the water shortage was predictable, had occurred in similar form over a decade earlier, and was worsened by the semiprivate water utility that same governor oversaw. Moreover, the association with climate change sought to naturalize the unequal ways in which water use was curbed, disproportionately drying the taps of the poor and racialized.10Daniel Aldana Cohen, “The Rationed City: The Politics of Water, Housing and Land Use in Drought-Parched São Paulo,” Public Culture 28, no. 2 (2016): 261–289. In both contexts, our engagement with the politics of climate change forces us to grapple with the uncomfortable possibility that oversimplifying these ecological conditions as “climate change” might lead to a reductionism that makes dispossession seem inevitable.11Kasia Paprocki, “All That Is Solid Melts into the Bay: Anticipatory Ruination and Climate Change Adaptation,” Antipode 51, no. 1 (2019): 295–315.
Yet, in other contexts, retaining climate change as a political category does quite the opposite. If climate science projections can be wielded for nefarious ends, making climate knowledge itself a material force, the very same climate science has been wielded by other actors to forge more hopeful alliances. Also in São Paulo, housing movements have used basic facts about residential density and emissions to argue that a genuinely low-carbon city would have to be organized around affordable working-class housing in central and well-connected areas.12Daniel Aldana Cohen, “The Other Low-Carbon Protagonists: Poor People’s Movements and Climate Politics in São Paulo,” in The City Is the Factory, ed. Miriam Greenberg and Penny Lewis (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017), 140–57. Indeed, the best carbon footprint analysis suggests that affordable housing and good public services (including transit) anchor the most sustainable and livable neighborhoods.13Daniel Aldana Cohen, “Climate Justice and the Right to the City” (white paper, Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, Penn Institute for Urban Research, and Perry World House, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 2018). An even more immediate example is the renewed battle for a Green New Deal, through which a giant coalition of eco-socialists, labor organizers, housing movements, farmers, and ranchers find common cause in climate change discourse to assemble a collective movement for climate justice. Of course, this nascent movement finds purpose precisely in uniting a plethora of political perspectives and demands. Our job as ethnographically minded researchers is explicitly not to edit out all the “noise,” but to embrace it in assembling an account of how climate politics manifest across radically different social, economic, and spatial formations.
Second, understanding these different conditions helps us see that equitable climate-change adaptation will look different in different contexts. The same strategies for adaptation applied universally will not result in climate justice. A key example is in debates over whether and how climate change will require the movement of peoples and communities away from vulnerable ecological hotspots and rising seas. This manifests as struggles over the contested necessity and inevitability of planned retreat.
As Liz Koslov describes in her research, in Staten Island, where communities hard hit by Hurricane Sandy went on to vote overwhelmingly for Donald Trump and were largely “agnostic” on the question of climate change, social movements composed of waterfront homeowners were also amongst the first in the country to advocate in serious and concrete ways for state buyouts as a strategy to support retreat—a potentially transformative mode of climate change adaptation.14Liz Koslov, “Avoiding Climate Change: ‘Agnostic Adaptation’ and the Politics of Public Silence,” Annals of the American Association of Geographers 109, no. 2 (2019): 568–580. See also Liz Koslov, “The Case for Retreat,” Public Culture 28, no. 2 (2016): 359–387. Conversely, in coastal Bangladesh and the neighboring Indian state of West Bengal, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) supported by the World Bank has promoted a vision of retreat that would involve massive displacement of rural residents in favor of export-oriented production in distant cities.15Paprocki, “All That Is Solid Melts into the Bay.” Local social movements of landless peasants argue that this dispossession is not inevitable (nor related to climate change)—rather, it is the result of an ongoing process of development through structural adjustment and export-led economic growth.16Kasia Paprocki and Saleemul Huq, “Shrimp and Coastal Adaptation: On the Politics of Climate Justice,” Climate and Development 10, no. 1 (2018): 1–3.
Reflecting on these dramatically different movements forces uncomfortable questions about planned retreat as a strategy for adapting to climate change. Who does it serve and what are its politics? Our analyses indicate that these answers cannot be oversimplified; they must always be understood in context and in conversation with local communities. Struggling with these uncomfortable questions is productive because it helps us to better understand and articulate how climate politics is always and already embedded in the social worlds that our disciplines have prepared us to understand.
Conclusion“This is a discomfort that pushes us toward deeper and more meaningful intellectual and political horizons.”
The discomforts described above offer a critical challenge to social scientists of climate change. We must not shy away from our discomforts, but address ourselves both to the complexity of the interwoven problems of climate change, inequality, racial capitalism, and empire, while also continuing to center radical politics in movements for climate justice. This is a discomfort that pushes us toward deeper and more meaningful intellectual and political horizons. It is the product of both the general challenges of scholar-activism,17Laura Pulido, “FAQs: Frequently Asked Questions on Being a Scholar/Activist,” in Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics and Methods of Activist Scholarship, ed. Charles R. Hale (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 341–366. and the uniquely pervasive and unstable nature of the study of the social life of climate change. All this pushes us to understand climate change’s discursive and material embeddedness in all of contemporary social and ecological life. Climate scientists and journalists may indeed despair at the failure of global climate commitments, couched as they are in a universal and universalizing idiom, which makes “the problem” seem so big and wicked. For us, by contrast, climate change research opens up opportunities for striving toward radical decolonization18→Kyle Whyte, “Indigenous Climate Change Studies: Indigenizing Futures, Decolonizing the Anthropocene,” English Language Notes 55, no. 1–2 (2017): 153–162.
→Leon Sealey-Huggins. “‘1.5°C to Stay Alive’: Climate Change, Imperialism and Justice for the Caribbean,” Third World Quarterly 38, no. 11 (2017): 2444–2463. in our systems of governance and knowledge production. Critical social science can reveal new coalitions, and new kinds of energy and agricultural politics, that would more effectively slash carbon emissions and reduce inequalities at the same time. Embracing our discomforts and acting through and despite them, and resisting apocalyptic despair, points us in the direction of new solidarities and more ambitious politics.
→Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin, The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).
→Leon Sealey-Huggins. “‘1.5°C to Stay Alive’: Climate Change, Imperialism and Justice for the Caribbean,” Third World Quarterly 38, no. 11 (2017): 2444–2463.