Enough Hot Air: Paul G. Harris’s Case For A New Climate Politics

By Justin ScottSeptember 29, 2013

What’s Wrong with Climate Politics and How to Fix It by Paul G. Harris

IN JUNE, MORE THAN six years after assuming the office of the presidency, Barack Obama stood at a podium at Georgetown University, sweating through temperatures near 100 degrees Fahrenheit. There, in what was billed as a “major speech,” he implored us to wake up to the realities of climate change. “We need to act,” he said, unless we want to condemn future generations to “a planet that’s beyond fixing.” We were once a nation united in our desire to preserve our amber waves of grain against the rising threat of a warming climate. The Clean Air Act of 1970, President Obama reminded us, passed the Senate unanimously, and it passed the House of Representatives 375–1. But now, a livable climate has become a partisan political issue, one that large corporations have consistently paid top dollar to make disappear wherever possible. They’ve been assisted by politicians increasingly devoted only to solving the problem of their electability in the next election, politicians who routinely refuse to exhibit leadership in telling people what they need to know: that the post-World War II take on the American Dream — two cars, a big house, and an insatiable appetite for consumer goods — is not sustainable for very long, especially as it spreads throughout the world.

Obama might be paying lip service to climate change, but one speech cannot and will not change the direction of our country’s emissions, and it certainly won’t change the global trend. It might not even change the trend within Obama’s own administration — we need not look any further than the likely approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. But the science is clear: we are running out of time, and the framework we currently employ to mitigate climate change is woefully inadequate.

According to Paul G. Harris, that framework is handicapped most especially by three variables: our “Westphalian,” nation-state-centric approach to solving international issues, our entrenched addiction to material consumption, and (sorry, Obama) the lack of leadership in the world’s most powerful nations and largest polluters: China and the United States. In his new book What’s Wrong with Climate Politics and How to Fix It, Harris addresses these issues at length, proposing a series of solutions that could, with a whole lot of effort, get us on the right track.

The problem is that, right now, we’re moving farther away from that track. In Harris’s words, “The tragedy of the atmospheric commons is growing worse.” We have been through 18 meetings of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), first held in Berlin in 1995 and most recently held to little fanfare in Qatar. Even people who care deeply about climate change pay these meetings no mind; the most these diplomats appear to be capable of is agreeing that something must be done, without doing much of anything. It sometimes seems like the total impact of all the flights, mini water bottles, and private cars that go into running the conferences has outweighed whatever emissions reductions the conferences have tangibly produced.


As Harris points out, part of the problem is that we are still bound to the primacy of national sovereignty in trying to address a truly transnational problem. 365 years after the Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War, promising nation-states stronger legal control than ever before over what happened within their territories, we still cling to the “Westphalian” centrality of nation-states in global affairs.

Yet our world is one of growing open-mindedness, one in which our national affiliation arguably matters less than ever before. With this in mind, Harris focuses on the necessities of dropping the nation-state from the conversation on emissions. But what’s more interesting is whether doing so might require a truly post-nation state paradigm.

There’s an ugly version of that paradigm, one in which corporate interests replace national interests to the further detriment of the people. But then there’s a version that places culture and humanity at the center. It’s one we see hints of today: Africans root for British football teams, artists collaborate across lingering post-colonial and post-Jim Crow fissures, we inter-marry, and people everywhere retool their identities through transnational social networks, culling bits and pieces from everywhere. This process is not always pretty — as Édouard Glissant warned, beneath the beautiful syncretism of creolization lies the potential “Coca-Colonization” of everything, the dynamics of money always giving the leg up to the hegemon. But the dynamics of how we become cosmopolitan does not undermine the fact that, on an individual level, people are moving toward ever more complex, connected, postnational identities.

All this is lost at the UNFCCC negotiating table. With the governing bodies of the world writing climate policy, we end up with nations and their interests at the center of the discussion. The individuals that make up the nations are left invisible, as are their varying obligations and responsibilities. This has been to the great detriment of action.

Climate change affects the world’s most vulnerable people, from rural African farmers without irrigation to poor coastal peoples that will be forced inland by sea level rise. These vulnerable populations are not at the negotiating table. Instead, technocrats engage in a dialogue in service of “those ruling and living within” the political community — hardly the people that would be most interested in aggressive action. The UNFCCC’s meetings thusly produce “least common denominator” responses; the necessity of securing near-unanimous support results in non-legally binding arrangements that mean little in a world of realpolitik. In legislatures everywhere, concerns over jobs, economic growth, and the future of the nation repeatedly trump the collective interest in a livable climate.

Nowhere is this tendency more egregious, Harris writes, than in the United States. Handicapped by shortsighted politicians, special interest dollars, and protectionist tendencies, the United States refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and it elected a president who arguably did more damage to climate change mitigation efforts than anyone in history. It’s tempting to think about what the national conversation on climate would be like had the United States elected Al Gore. But even a President Gore could not have countered the underlying psychologies behind our inability to act. Spurred on by a lingering belief in manifest destiny and an addiction to consumer goods, the American people and millions of other consumers worldwide have mostly refused to be constrained by carbon taxes and emissions caps, rejecting the idea that our particular model of capitalist growth should have limits seen by many as artificial.

Increasingly, the United States’ position on climate change has been to wait for China to act. But Harris argues that China has some legitimate reasons to stand its ground, waiting instead for the United States to make a move. For one, though China is today the world’s largest emitter, its role in all cumulative emissions throughout history is far lower than that of the United States, Canada, and Western Europe. China can also point to per capita GHG emission rates in waiting to act; once broken down per person, Chinese emissions are far lower than those of their Western counterparts. With these facts in mind, why should China restrict its growth? Harris is largely receptive to these arguments, and the solutions he presents in the book’s second half take the Chinese position into account.

He is less tolerant of the United States’ failure to act, calling American policy on climate “pitiful,” but he argues that the dialogue on climate change cannot advance without more leadership from both nations. Together, they account for 40 percent of total GHG emissions worldwide, and without a “grand bargain” between them, he argues, we are doomed to more gridlock. There is nothing wrong with that argument on the surface. However, there is no historical precedent for a diplomatic project so daunting, and nobody has much faith in the climate process as currently constituted. Harris knows it, so he suggests a way out: that only the affluent in each country be required to act, breaking down the rich nation/poor nation dichotomy and freeing millions of Chinese to continue their march toward middle class lifestyles.

But who’s to say that’ll be any easier? In reality, it won’t be possible without serious political turmoil, both in the US and China. At the heart of the matter is who governments are truly responsive to; most governments figured out long ago that it’s good to be nice to the rich folks if you want to stay in power.

A “grand bargain” between two countries is not enough. Nor is fixing the politics, period. To get to where we need to go, we need to address Harris’s second risk factor, that of unchecked and rapidly worsening consumer addiction to modern lifestyles and material goods. At this point, talking about growth, consumption, and what really constitutes happiness, the conversation gets especially interesting. That’s because it asks questions which are “controversial and get to the heart of how people live (including sex, lifestyle, and consumer choice), which governments often believe should not be subject to diplomatic scrutiny, let alone international regulation.”


From here, Harris draws on the work of population theorists Thomas Malthus and Paul Erlich, and on the ideas of environmental advocates Inge Röpke and James Gustave Speth, to craft what is probably this book’s most useful contribution to the dialogue on how to fix climate politics. (Yes, Malthus and Erlich are still relevant, Harris reminds us, contrary to what your economist friend might think.) Addressing the United States, Harris modifies the positions of Malthus and Erlich to emphasize the problem of exploding material desires:

[I]t is not the number of Americans per se that has contributed so much to the climate change problem. Far more important is their extraordinarily high level of individual consumption and the North American economies’ heavy reliance on the profligate use of fossil fuels […] [M]odernity and affluence, and an associated addiction to unnecessary material consumption, are among the most important sources of global environmental problems, climate change especially.

These tendencies are spreading across the world, with millions joining the ranks of the middle class every year. In other words, what Harris calls our “affluenza” has gone global. Spread “through trade, advertising, modern communications, and travel,” this affluenza is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better. Every day, people around the world buy more cars, eat more meat, and run more air conditioners. Röpke calls this the modern lifestyle, and my guess is that if you’re reading this article, you’re just as guilty of living it as I am. Right now, we’re already pushing up against the system’s limits. If all 9 billion people predicted to be alive around mid-century were living like 21st-century Americans, the global economy would be 15 times its current size, with emissions to match. Can you imagine that?

Aside from being bad for the earth, Harris argues, our “affluenza” is also bad for our souls. “People in the developed world are enmeshed in a busy cycle of work to earn more money that will enable them to consume more, which in turn requires working harder to earn more money to consume yet more,” he writes. This is true even as studies have repeatedly shown that “once people’s basic needs have been met, quality of life overall does not increase significantly with an overall growth in wealth.”

With the marketing machine of capitalism working overtime 24/7/365, most people fail to act on this knowledge. There’s too much to buy, too much we need to wear and show off to demonstrate how vital we are, how in this age of no meaning our lives bring some value to the table. Increasingly, Westerners are not alone in reinforcing self-worth through consumption. According to Homi Kharas, an economist at the Brookings Institution, “the global middle class numbered 1.8 billion people in 2009, likely reaching 3.2 billion in 2020 and 4.9 billion in 2030, with 85 percent of these people being in Asia.” By 2050, if we want to meet these new consumers’ growing demands for meat and Western-style foods, we will have to double global food production. What technological advance is going to make that happen that fast? 

If all of this seems anti-growth, you’re right. Harris’s text is, in some sense, the book your local chapter of dumpster-diving hippies would write if they had PhDs and taught at world-renowned universities. Underneath the UN’s failure to move the debate forward, underneath the malignancy of the United States–China standoff, and underneath our material addiction lies an obsession with growth that Harris considers wholly unhealthy. Our “growth fetishism” is an inevitable corollary of a capitalist world, and though many economists balk at the idea of finite limits to growth, the evidence against their position is piling up. 

Hence Harris’s hope of building a postmaterialist world, one in which we don’t value ourselves based on what we own. In other words, if geoengineering is too risky, and if fiscal incentives aren’t going to get us to act fast enough, maybe we can tackle climate change through behavioral change, through “extensive education, historical stories, and propaganda.” Taking his cues from Mao and Hitler (seriously), he must understand the negative consequences that can come with a government intent on transforming peoples’ psychologies. But he argues that, in this case, such transformation is necessary.

Harris leaves the specifics of the education and propaganda push out of the conversation, but he clearly expects national governments to lead. In some sense, this contradicts his insistence that we move beyond nations in conceptualizing our path forward. However, his book is keen on presenting a path forward that does not necessitate sudden political rupture, because we cannot jump straight into a world without nations.

He thus argues that the emitters of the world (you and I) can be convinced that “consumer capitalism relies on a ‘constant feeling of dissatisfaction to sustain spending’” — from within the system. Maybe, without dramatic rupture, everyone engaged in the modern lifestyle can realize that “time-poor lives, unsatisfying work, and endless debt” are not the route to self-actualization. Maybe we will learn to work enough to survive, buy only what we need, and use the rest of our time to relax, spend time with family, and pursue happiness instead of material wealth.

This line of thinking has something in common with the burgeoning theory of a “post-work world” of the New Left, championed most notably by Peter Frase and his colleagues over at Jacobin. While Harris notes that many people, “particularly in affluent communities, will balk at the idea of consuming less,” I can think of a whole bunch of smart people who would willingly trade half of their possessions to recoup half of their work time, as long as they got to keep their security blanket of healthcare, auto insurance, food, shelter, and of course their iPhone. Therein lies another kind of limit: people will not move so far away from their consumer selves as to renounce the technologies that have become entrenched in our daily routines.

Still, even a few hard incentives to encourage a postmaterialist world will prime peoples’ brains for the other solutions Harris pushes. Some of these are obvious, like taxing carbon at the source. This has to happen soon, and it will as the effects of climate change pile up. But some of the other ideas are truly brilliant. Of these, I was particularly convinced by Harris’s call for individual carbon caps — rather than carbon caps for nations — so as to escape the Westphalian deadlock we find ourselves in now. With a focus on individual emissions, only those who have already achieved affluence will have to reduce their footprint. Those still clawing their way out of poverty get a free pass until they’re living like middle-class citizens.

But how do we define middle class? One of Harris’s academic sources suggests an annual income of $10,000 as a baseline; anyone making more must pay a carbon tax based on their measured emissions. However, $10,000 is below the poverty line in the United States. With differential costs and varying access to goods across borders, people are bound to argue with any number set arbitrarily. And overall, the idea of monitoring anyone’s individual emissions is an incredibly complicated idea. Would we have carbon scores like we have credit scores? How could we ensure people don’t cheat? How can we even accurately monitor this stuff, especially in remote areas? Harris leaves these questions unanswered, but even if it’s unclear how exactly we’d get to that point, the idea is at least an idea, something we need a lot of right now.

By focusing on individuals, the deadlock between China and the United States ostensibly breaks down — so long as the two governments are willing to hold their most affluent citizens accountable. In a world increasingly governed by the elite for the elite, how likely is that? Hence the easiest criticism of Harris’s book: this stuff makes a lot of sense, and his arguments are rational and detailed. But since when has human history followed the laws of rationality? What happens if we get to water scarcity, peak oil, and a two-plus degree Celsius temperature rise before we implement these solutions, change our ways, or reach our technological Eureka moment? Suffering, to be sure. War, perhaps. Total chaos, if everything happens at once.

Or maybe we get our act together. Then the future looks like James Gustave Speth’s vision: 

Preferred lifestyles combine material sufficiency with qualitative fulfillment. Conspicuous consumption and glitter are viewed as vulgar throwbacks to an earlier era. The pursuit of the well-lived life turns to the quality of existence — creativity, ideas, culture, human relationships and harmonious relationships with nature. […] The economy is understood as the means to these ends, rather than an end in itself.

In order to get to this utopia, Harris argues, “each capable person should do all that he or she can” to reduce his or her footprint and help those most affected by climate change. Sound familiar? It should. Harris’s ideal future sounds a lot like Marx’s — to each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities. Marxism is a tough sell today, after a century of Western propaganda against anything remotely socialist, and so Harris’s ideas will be a tough sell too. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. What’s Wrong with Climate Politics and How to Fix It is a very good book of workable solutions, even if we will surely wait longer than we should to adopt them.


Justin Scott earned an MA in African studies from Yale, and is currently a PhD candidate in anthropology at UCLA. His research focuses on social networking and new notions of kinship in West Africa.

LARB Contributor

Justin Scott earned an MA in African studies from Yale, and is currently a PhD candidate in anthropology at UCLA. His research focuses on social networking and new notions of kinship in West Africa.


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