X and the Leviathan: Can We Imagine an Alternative Politics of Climate Change?

By Shannon OsakaApril 21, 2019

X and the Leviathan: Can We Imagine an Alternative Politics of Climate Change?

Climate Leviathan by Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann

THE DANGERS and impending impacts of climate change are now so well documented that they risk becoming journalistic and scientific tropes. As Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright note in their new book Climate Leviathan (2018), “There is, on one hand, the almost imperceptible background noise of rising seas and upward ticking of food prices, punctuated, on the other hand, by the occasional pounding of stochastic events.” Apocalyptic narratives, in other words, come thick and fast, and with them a sense of hopelessness, or — worse yet — apathy.

The planet has warmed by approximately one degree Celsius since pre-industrial times, and temperatures and CO2 levels continue to climb. Coral reefs are acidifying, and small island states are drowning. This summer, heat waves scorched Europe and wildfires devastated the American West. Some commentators argue that climate change is intensifying the migrant crisis, which has pushed millions of refugees across borders, catalyzing xenophobia and a resurgent wave of nationalism in Europe and the United States. In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in a special report that even 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming — a level we are likely to reach in the 2040s, barring unprecedented action in the next 12 years — will be catastrophic.

Meanwhile, apart from the Green New Deal and the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, mainstream American politicians have largely ignored climate change, opting instead to battle over taxes, foreign wars, and immigration. With only five percent of the world’s population, the United States has produced 28 percent of the world’s cumulative greenhouse gas emissions. But when it comes to global climate politics, it impedes rather than facilitates — most famously by withdrawing from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and now, thanks to President Trump, withdrawing from the 2015 Paris Agreement as well.

Against this backdrop, delegates from around the world convened last December in Katowice, Poland, for the 24th United Nations Conference of the Parties on climate change, or COP24. It was an ironic choice of location. Katowice, the capital of the Polish region of Silesia, is renowned for its carbon-dioxide-spewing coal production, which provides 80 percent of the country’s electricity. Delegates coughed and covered their faces against the smell of coal dust and smog. At a protest outside the conference, Polish marchers wore face masks and respirators.

But while the venue was novel, the politics was business-as-usual. In what may well be a strange new alliance of petro-states, the United States, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Russia moved to block critical language in the final “rulebook” for implementation of the Paris agreement. As for representatives from small island states at risk of losing their homelands to sea level rise, they made impassioned pleas that fell on deaf ears.

If there is anything that the last 40 years has taught us, it is that our systems of governance — nation-states on the verge of supranationalism but with splintering fringe populism gaining ground — are ill-equipped for climate change. The question is not whether business-as-usual politics will get us through the climate crisis (it won’t). The question is whether our political systems will change in time.

Enter Mann and Wainwright. Unlike many books on climate politics, Climate Leviathan is neither apocalyptic nor prescriptive. It is exactly what its subtitle promises: “a political theory of our planetary future,” at once speculative and wide-ranging. Echoing the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who envisioned a state he called the “Leviathan” capable of withstanding the horrors of the English Civil War, Mann and Wainwright sketch futures that have yet to emerge. “Climate change,” they write, “poses political problems for which the current order has no answer.” Their purpose is to predict what might come next.

Sketching four archetypal futures, they give each a name designed to unnerve us out of our inaction. First, and most likely, is what, referencing Thomas Hobbes, they call the “Climate Leviathan”: an ostensibly sustainable remake of capitalism, complete with global carbon markets, a “green” Keynesianism, and an international order steered by the World Bank and the United Nations. This is green consumerism writ large, with a world government thrown in for good measure.

A second future, albeit one that gets short shrift in their book, is “Climate Mao” — an authoritarian socialist state that regulates the emissions of all countries while also aggressively limiting population.

Both are dark futures, but perhaps not as dark as the third option: “Climate Behemoth,” which recent events have rendered more likely than ever. If capitalism fails to adequately address the climate crisis (and no Maoist state takes over), Mann and Wainwright see the world devolving into populist factions, with nations retreating from international agreements to guard against climate impacts at home. This is an every-nation-for-itself outcome, a Trumpian planet where the rich batten down the hatches, close the borders, and wait out the storm.

The fourth scenario: a bottom-up, anticapitalist politics, which Mann and Wainwright coyly refer to as “Climate X.” Representing a more hopeful future, X is only now beginning to emerge in calls for climate justice. But it might be swallowed up by the Leviathan.


Four decades ago, John Holdren, a physicist and future science advisor to President Obama, co-authored an ecology textbook with Paul and Anne Ehrlich (the biologists who, a decade earlier, had warned of runaway population growth in The Population Bomb). In the conclusion, Holdren suggested a potential solution for global environmental problems. He argued that governance could someday evolve into a “Planetary Regime,” “an international superagency” able to manage natural resources, pollutants, and even populations — so long as nations accepted its authority.

Mann and Wainwright find the idea of a global super-government a bit authoritarian, and a bit dystopian. But this hasn’t stopped the idea from recurring in political thought. Philosophers from Plato to Kant to Theodor Adorno have wrestled with the idea of a “World Government,” one that would bring an end to war, bickering nation-states, and the threat of nuclear annihilation. The United Nations, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization are faint shadows of an emergent supranational world order, ruled by bureaucratic experts and driven by the needs of the time. In our era, climate change is an obvious addition to the list of mega-problems that a global authority might tackle.

These institutions are, however, deeply, and perhaps irrevocably, capitalist. Following in the footsteps of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, Mann and Wainwright argue that, to come to grips with climate change, we must first and foremost come to grips with capitalism. Our passion for growth, fortified by metrics such as GDP and driven by the enormous reserves of fossil fuels that we uproot and emit, has compromised large swathes of the planet. Consumption is the name of the game, and even the promise of transitioning to a service economy — which some hoped would convert growth from ecological disaster to ecological panacea — has proved ineffectual. The developed world has exported much of its material production and subsequent environmental degradation to developing countries. Meanwhile, citizens of the United States, Canada, and Australia consume more fossil fuels per capita than almost any other country in the world.

We are thus in the midst not so much of a scientific crisis but a “crisis of imagination and ideology.” Unable or unwilling to address the root causes of global warming, our international political system is inching toward the Climate Leviathan, fumbling for solutions with the same tools that got us into this mess. Some of the greatest economic minds in the world continue to see climate change as market failure, without considering the limiting structures of the “market” itself. As Fredric Jameson noted in 2003 in the New Left Review: “[I]t is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”

Most policies are based on one implicit assumption — that our only real hope for changing the trajectory of climate change is massive, neo-Keynesian investment by nation-states in new technologies, and in tax credits for green energy. Rather than digging into the root of the climate problem, green capitalist solutions promise endless growth tethered to an environmentally friendly welfare state.

It’s a compelling story. The problem is that, to date, such projects have failed, at least if the metric of success is keeping to 1.5 degrees Celsius to two degrees Celsius of warming. Few nations have galvanized public support for ambitious green investment, and those that have are stymied by the reality that today’s economy is global, not national. Global markets don’t necessarily respond to domestic interest rates. Mann and Wainwright argue that if — and this is a big if! — green capitalism can rescue us from the climate crisis, then it will have to come from some sort of world government, one in which Keynesian policies are orchestrated and directed by a central authority. In short, a Leviathan.

But they remain ambivalent about whether a Climate Leviathan could, in fact, rescue us from catastrophe. No central authority or nation-state has been willing to take on planetary stewardship in order to usher in a new international order. The United States has ducked its responsibilities to the global community, first in Kyoto and now in the aftermath of Paris. China has been left to fill the vacuum, but it shows little willingness to sacrifice its citizens’ well-being for the planetary good. The Paris Agreement, signed in 2015, was heralded as a great victory by politicians around the world — but it is effectively toothless. Nations are expected to set goals for emissions reductions and report on their progress, but they face no penalties for non-compliance beyond a collective “name and shame.” As of the end of 2018, none of the major emitters was meeting its promised targets.

And if a Leviathan did emerge, is a capitalist solution to climate change even possible? Klein and others say no; some economists say yes.

Mann and Wainwright argue that, while a capitalist solution may exist, it will certainly be unjust — reproducing the same inequalities that exist between the Global North and the Global South, and so between the massive fossil-fuel users in developed countries and those who suffer climate change’s worst impacts in the developing world. This makes imagining an alternative to the Leviathan — a non-capitalist globe without a dominant world government — “not only possible but imperative.”


In Katowice, at a UFO-shaped conference center called Spodek, academics rubbed shoulders with negotiators; college students wandered the halls in lanyards; and delegations from various countries set up small pavilions to tout their green energy innovations. An installation paid for by Visa, set up just outside the large plenary rooms, promised to donate to climate adaptation with each “tap” of a contactless credit card. The UK’s pavilion boasted a self-driving electric car emblazoned with the Union Jack. A bystander told me, sotto voce, that the climate conference had become “part negotiation, part tradeshow.”

The United States had no official pavilion, but a pale white cube dubbed the “US Climate Action Center” hosted speakers and members of the #WeAreStillIn movement — a network of businesses, politicians, and civil society leaders that pledged to stick with the Paris Agreement after Trump pulled out. It was an odd collection of interests. A member of the Quinault nation spoke alongside an Episcopal bishop and an environmental representative from the candy company Mars. A panel on sustainable agriculture featured the environmental director of Coca-Cola.

Since 2017, companies have made pledges to #WeAreStillIn — to cut emissions by 30 percent by 2030, to get to net-zero by 2050, to prevent worldwide deforestation. Their promises are a corporate mirror of the Paris Agreement: nonbinding commitments to emissions reductions. Sitting in the Climate Action Center, it was difficult to believe that the representatives from Mars or Coca-Cola would be back in 11 or 31 years to report success on goals made during a different, perhaps more optimistic, political era. #WeAreStillIn may provide a hopeful umbrella, one that captures activists, governors, mayors, and companies. But it’s still hard to know whether it symbolizes bottom-up, community-led systemic change or simply green capitalism writ large — growth buoyed by environmental virtue-signaling.

Meanwhile, in the plenaries and side chambers, delegates hashed out the details of a Paris Agreement “rulebook” meant to last until the end of the century. Negotiators had to decide how countries should self-report emissions, how carbon markets would function across international borders, and whether each country should uphold a uniform set of rules. The stakes were high, but the negotiating itself, riddled with microscopic disagreements over text marked out by square brackets, was hamstrung by the US presence, such as it was. The State Department sent a delegation that included Wells Griffith, President Trump’s energy advisor, who hosted a pro-coal event in the second week of the conference. The most dramatic moment in the conference came when the United States, joined by Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, refused to “welcome” the special report that the United Nations itself had commissioned on the dangers of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. They preferred to simply “note” it. Such is the capriciousness of international diplomacy.

But there was another group in Katowice: the protestors. Mostly teenagers, some were from indigenous groups, some from the Global South, and some from the largest developed nations in the world. They gathered in the hallways, singing and staging interventions. At the US-sponsored coal panel, they rushed the stage chanting, “Keep it in the ground!”

A loose interest group, these protestors were held together more by frustration than ideology. They were reminiscent of what Naomi Klein, widely considered one of the loudest voices in the climate justice movement, has dubbed “Blockadia.” “Blockadia is not a specific location on a map,” she writes in This Changes Everything, “but rather a roving transnational conflict zone that is cropping up with increasing frequency and intensity wherever extractive projects are attempting to dig and drill.” One might say that the Keystone XL pipeline actions in the United States were a form of Blockadia, as is the large Australian youth protest against the Adani coal mine. After seeing the “failures of top-down environmentalism,” many young people are, according to Klein, “flocking to the barricades of Blockadia.”

On my last day in Poland, I walked with some 3,600 protestors in a marsz dla klimatu, or climate march. A Silesian anarchist group marched behind a banner reading “Smash Capitalism.” A young man clung to a papier-mâché head of the climate-denying Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro. The atmosphere was fun, almost rowdy, some teenagers carrying a makeshift pipeline made out of recycled garbage bags. But state power still loomed over Katowice’s wide streets. The Polish government had deployed riot police, who stood on the sidelines with batons in their hands and tear gas canisters clipped to their backs. A water cannon drove past on a nearby boulevard. “Climate justice now!” the protestors shouted.

Climate justice is the new buzzword in activism, used by everyone from Klein to new Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But the climate justice movement remains, as yet, a decentralized web of young people, indigenous communities, anti-capitalists — anyone who rejects the business-as-usual approach and fears an impending Leviathan. Mann and Wainwright are well aware of the strange politics of climate justice and of protesting climate change. In Paris, before the agreement was signed, they argued that the average protestor became, “if reluctantly or ironically, a cheerleader for elite institutions: less ‘Shut it Down!’ than ‘Make a Deal!’” “How should we protest,” they wonder, “against an international forum one wishes was different and more effective, that one would in fact be for if it were powerful and radical?”

The same concerns were present on the streets of Katowice. Some of us were protesting the quest for infinite growth, while others were protesting the slow pace of negotiations. Some hoped for a new socialist era, while others wanted Poland to commit to giving up coal.

In short: The climate protestor is caught in a bind, half-supporting, half-resisting the work of the international elite.

What’s to be done, then, with the climate justice movement, with all its multifaceted energies and desires? Mann and Wainwright don’t have a good answer, but they do express a desire of their own — for an outcome that is not the capitalist Climate Leviathan, nor the reactionary Climate Behemoth, nor the frighteningly centralized Climate Mao. What they call “Climate X” represents their hope that the activists on the front lines of Blockadia and the marchers in the streets of Katowice will create a new, bottom-up climate change politics: one that rejects both global sovereignty and green capitalism. Quoting Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si, they argue that we must hear “both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” Their vision is similar to that of Klein, who argues that climate change could be the revolutionary catalyst needed to transform political relations worldwide.

Books on climate change always suffer in the final chapter, with writers oscillating between hope and lack of concrete plans. In their last section, Mann and Wainwright try to sketch how “Climate X” should look and on what foundations it could be built. Unfortunately for us, they don’t get far: they believe X should be rooted in “equality, dignity, solidarity,” but the pathway to X is maddeningly opaque. Will it mean placing bodies between fossil-fuel extractors and the land and oil they want? Will it involve a radically local politics that starts at the community level and builds upward? We can only guess.

Mann and Wainwright evasively conclude that we have to “solve for” X, in order to break open the imaginative block that has stymied climate politics since the 1980s. They suggest “mass boycott, divestment, strike, blockade.” But this is almost too easy. It’s much harder to imagine a new world in which the Global North doesn’t guzzle up fossil fuels at the expense of the impoverished. Mann and Wainwright are, if not concrete, then self-aware. They are trapped in the same “imaginative crisis” of climate change politics that afflicts us all.


Climate Leviathan came out last year, before the Green New Deal, buoyed by Ocasio-Cortez, catapulted into the American mainstream. Impossibly ambitious and light on specifics, the Green New Deal calls for bringing US emissions to net-zero in 10 years through massive federal government investment. But it also advocates for a suite of social justice measures, including “high-quality health care” and “economic security” for “all people of the United States.”

Mann and Wainwright are generally dismissive of the idea of a “Green New Deal,” which has previously been promoted by everyone from Obama’s economic advisor Lawrence Summers to Deutsche Bank. They see it as another component of green capitalism — and therefore as missing the point, and unlikely to succeed without a global sovereign. But the fact is that the Green New Deal touted by Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Edward Markey seems to sit somewhere between Climate X and the Leviathan. On the one hand, it is an idea born of grassroots climate activism and a youthful push for equity; on the other hand, its namesake refers to an exemplar of neoliberal and Keynesian ideals of top-down economic regulation. At the moment, the Green New Deal is popular among some radicals (it is supported by the youth-led activist Sunrise Movement) as well as some establishmentarians. In its nebulous form, it contains multitudes: it can hold many ideologies under its hopeful umbrella.

The Green New Deal may be one example of our collective political attempt to muddle through — a push and pull between top-down and bottom-up, between utopianism and pragmatism.

Katowice — a coal town hosting a climate conference — was emblematic of these contradictions and compromises. To paraphrase environmentalist George Monbiot, it was not a miracle, nor was it a disaster. A rulebook was made and agreed upon. Corporations had their day in the green spotlight. Protestors protested. But the story of the conference was not about the procedures that were developed or even the climate marchers that lined the streets. It was about which political future — or combinations of political futures — will win out in the next several decades. And whether any of them will be sufficient to meet the rising tide.


Shannon Osaka is completing a master’s in geography on the Sachs Scholarship at Worcester College, University of Oxford. Her writing has appeared in Grist, Mother Jones, and WIRED.

LARB Contributor

Shannon Osaka is completing a master’s in geography on the Sachs Scholarship at Worcester College, University of Oxford. Her writing has appeared in Grist, Mother Jones, and WIRED.


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