The Geopolitical Boomerang: Can We Still Hope to Meet the Climate Challenge?
On 28 April 2022, two months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, the Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres was bombarded in Kyiv by Russia, mere hours after having visited President Putin in Moscow. What a symbol! For several weeks the war had overwhelmed Europe’s heart. We were confronted with images of the Bucha massacre, Marioupol and the Donbass in ruins, and millions of Ukrainian refugees. Yet, despite wars in the Balkans, Iraq, and Syria, we must acknowledge — to our profound guilt and shame — that we, the citizens of democratic Europe, no longer imagined war touching us.
Just a few months before, in November 2021, during the opening ceremony of COP26 in Glasgow, Boris Johnson was playing to the Davos crowd, calling for the re-enchantment of capitalism as solution to the climate crisis: “We in this room can deploy hundreds of billions. No question. But the market has hundreds of trillions. And the task now is to work together to help our friends to decarbonize…” 1 . The friends in question are the fossil fuel majors, old industrial giants, or smart tech multinationals — of which several (Shell, Apple, Walmart, and others) have annual revenues that surpass the GDP of many nations — who are supposed to invest massive amounts of money to decarbonize the global economy and rise to the climate challenge. But we know that decades of effort to mobilize different market strategies, from voluntary commitments to the idea of a single carbon price, to attempts to “de-risk” green investments to redirect private savings, have never had the expected results. Political effort and economic tools have all proven insufficient; they all fundamentally fail to address reality 2 .
We are no longer — if indeed we ever were — looking at an orderly and gradual transition, facilitated by global consensus, to a greener world. Yet this illusion, along with several others we will come back to, have for three decades tacitly accompanied the global governance and even the framing of the climate problem. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has violently shattered these illusions and its shock wave has exposed the contours of disorderly and unequal dynamics, driven by conflicting forces, in a highly confrontational landscape. The geopolitical lack of thought concerning climate governance is now coming back to us like a boomerang, exposing the fragility of a system that has relied on the civilizing force of markets and the virtues of broad, almost universal international cooperation.
The impasse over climate governance is also paired with great difficulties in the democratic functioning of Western states. Inabilities to agree at the national level, the rise of populist movements (the anti-democratic machinations of Trump in the United States or Bolsonaro in Brazil, the rising turnout for the extreme-right in France or Italy, violent anti-vax protests, campaigns against wind power), as well as the explosion of social grievances in countries in Europe and elsewhere, can be seen all over. Never has the dream of erasing development inequalities at a global level and social inequalities at the nation-state level through the virtues of soft trade and market forces alone seemed so vain.
How, then, can we characterize our present moment, what exactly is in crisis today, and how can we still imagine still being able to rise to this climate challenge? These are the questions that this article will attempt to begin answering.
An uncertain and fragmented world confronted with the climate drama
At the turn of the 21st century, for the more enlightened and informed minds, climate change seemed to represent the major challenge of the coming decades. This has without a doubt proved to be true! In response to the alarming temperature increase projections made by climatologists for the end of the century, economists from the IPCC’s third working group, energy experts and specialized think tanks produced a wide range of medium and long-term scenarios that explored different pathways to global decarbonization. But, paradoxically, the way in which experts and policy elites imagined tackling the climate threat was long based on a paradigm that separated discussions on climate policy from discussions on industrial, financial, and economic policies — both global and national — which are essential to operating the low-carbon transformation. In 2015, at the wake of the Paris climate conference, this discrepancy was at the core of our argument that there is a “schism of reality” in global climate governance, as well as of our call for a reterritorialization of climate policies 3 . As for the fractures caused by the explosion of social inequalities and other environmental problems (biodiversity, water, soil, pollution, etc.) in the planet’s various territories or seas, they have also long been separated from the climate crisis. On this last front, however, things have started to change. Debates on planetary boundaries and tipping points, as well as those surrounding the notion of the Anthropocene have greatly changed the perception and boundaries of the climate problem. The climate crisis has become the sign of a necessary and profound ecological transformation of societal relationships with nature, the planet, and its resources. Even mainstream economists and legal scholars can no longer ignore the problem of ecological limits and planetary boundaries.
Two decades later, it has also become clear that the climate crisis is not the only major problem of our time, as serious as it may be. The world has been shaken by recurring, overlapping and mutually reinforcing geopolitical crises, which succeed each other and occupy political and media spaces. By monopolizing attention, they regularly overshadow the urgency of the climate challenge, causing delays in adopting climate policies or implementing existing measures. Among these crises, we can mention the dramatic attacks of Islamist terrorism, from September 11, 2001 to the attacks on the Bataclan in Paris in 2015, the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the color revolutions of the 2000s, quickly followed by Russia’s aggressive assertion of its plea for regional hegemony, the global financial crisis followed by the euro crisis, the Arab revolutions, the war in Syria and the migratory movements that it triggered in Europe, and finally, two years of the global Covid pandemic and today the war in Ukraine.
The consequences of Covid-19 were global: the world economy, international trade and commerce came to a partial halt for several months, and the sovereignty of nations unable to produce masks, medicines, or certain basic necessities appeared fragile and threatened. Worrying increases in public debt followed. In many places, governments displayed only limited capacity to develop rational and transparent policies, and withstand the pressure of various lobbies, giving rise to mistrust of political elites and sometimes scientists. Yet 2020 was also the only year in recent history where global greenhouse gas emissions decreased to the extent that would be necessary to meet climate targets; and the pandemic has led to significant social experimentations, in relationships to work, mobility, consumption, and social life in urban and rural areas. What is missing so far are politicians wanting to seize this opportunity to debate such experimentations or to include them in projects for the ecological transformation of our societies and lifestyles.
The criminal war in Ukraine has caused shock waves in global energy markets, increases in the price of grains, runaway inflation; it threatens food crises and hunger in several parts of the world. It has exposed Europe’s energy dependence, opening a window of opportunity to reduce fossil fuel use, but also for the launch of new oil and gas explorations and the move towards other fossil fuel exporters. In reality, the window is not opening, or if so, very little. A Churchillian discourse has yet to emerge, one which would call on citizens and nations to seize on this electroshock to set us on the path of sufficiency — which is a necessary element not only for any long-term strategy to reach climate objectives but also for the tactical objective of drying up Russia’s war budget. At the end of a summer marked in Europe by the war and successive heatwaves, forest fires and unprecedented drought, President Emmanuel Macron recently spoke of, “the end of abundance and carelessness”. The European Union presented an emergency plan to conserve natural gas. In Germany, the Minister for Economic Affairs, Robert Habeck, called for a “great national effort” and presented two legislative packages on energy conservation. But for the moment these measures and declarations appear as little systematic, are fragmented, and stand at odds with other political priorities. There is no sign of a determined and courageous shift towards other policies, no profound realization of the climate tragedy. Sufficiency continues to be viewed as oppressive and punitive. And the new confrontation between geopolitical blocs further reinforces the need for growth and concerns over the security of energy supply, while increasing the use of resources.
In this uncertain and crisis-ridden world it is difficult to clearly discern the contours of the political terrain on which this drama will play out upon in the coming decades. Let us start with mapping it out by outlining the main fault lines that are currently overlapping. Originally, the main division in the climate arena was the one between the developed countries — historically responsible for warming — and the developing countries — who defended their right to development. Superimposed on this initial division is a second one which pits the large emitters in both the global North and South (China, India, Brazil) against the most vulnerable countries and small islands threatened with submersion. This second fault line became very clear at the end of the Copenhagen conference in 2009, when a ‘deal’ between the major emerging countries and the United States outlined the contours of the future climate governance system: affirmation of sovereignty concerns, refusal of any constraints in terms of reductions and financing, and emphasis on voluntary contributions. COP26, held in Glasgow in November 2021, showed that this understanding between the big emitters of both past and future, which allows one side to buy time on their transition and the other side to shirk paying for climate damages, is now a defining axis of the international climate arena 4 . COPs will continue, but what importance, what impact can they still have in this world? One of the principal arguments in their favor was always that poorer, developing countries have a voice there. But given this de facto pact, this is less and less the case. For example, the $100 billion of climate finance per year promised in Paris — already a very modest amount when compared to what is actually needed for adaptation and the transition in the global South — has still not been reached. If climate conferences still serve a purpose today, it is perhaps when they sometimes bring to light the impasses and contradictions at the heart of current climate policies. This is the case in rare political moments, where, behind the UN’s wooden language and the almost mystical communication speak of consulting firms, deep tensions between legitimate but irreconcilable positions are revealed. On the one hand, there is the absolute climate emergency recognized by scientists, young activists, and vulnerable countries who stress the need for very short timeframes for global decarbonization at the risk of appearing to ignore political realities (e.g., “we only have three years left to save the climate”); on the other hand, there is the argument of sovereignty and large blocs, which boasts of prioritizing justice and development at the risk of creating new injustices by putting off the necessary transformations. It must be recognized that if the COPs are an arena where these tensions have been exposed, they have proven structurally incapable of resolving them.
It is not enough to study UN arenas to understand climate politics. These are also a part of the geopolitical realities of our world. In the 1990s and 2000s, the United States was the biggest importer of petroleum in the world, and their historical alliance with the Gulf countries — Saudi Arabia first and foremost — boxed the climate regime into a paradigm that prevented any explicit discussion of energy resources or technologies. Today, this political constellation is changing. Changes that are quicker, more surreptitious, and silent have caught the world off guard. The consequences of the shale gas revolution in the United States for example have never been explicitly addressed in the climate arena. However, in less than 15 years, the United States has gone from importing 60% of its oil needs to being the leading fossil fuel producer and even an exporter. This has been very unsettling for the Middle East, which the United States has partially freed itself from, and has created a knot of tensions for current geopolitical dynamics as this export capacity makes the United States a new competitor with Russia on the European natural gas market. Another silent revolution has been the explosive expansion of renewable energies — solar photovoltaics and wind — in Europe, China, and elsewhere in the world, which has just as profoundly redrawn the energy map. This boom has been accompanied by a sharp drop in costs, reaching -85% for photovoltaic electricity and -56% for onshore wind power between 2010 and 2020 5 . In 2020, China’s wind and solar capacity each represented 35% of the global total. These two sectors, which are constantly growing, still only account for 9.3% of electricity production in China (23% in the European Union), due to the overall growth in demand, but Chinese manufacturing capacity in these sectors is enormous. Finally, China is investing in all segments of the industry (lithium, rare earths, batteries) and is securing sites to ensure that the necessary resources will be available in the future.
In this context, Helen Thompson refers to “two geopolitics of energy 6 that overlap and destabilize traditional points of reference. It would be naïve to think of these changes through the lens of a smooth transition to a more stable and cooperative world. It is quite the contrary, as Jason Bordoff and Meghan O’Sullivan write, “there is no way that the world can avoid major upheavals as it remakes the entire energy system, which is the lifeblood of the global economy and underpins the geopolitical order.” 7 The oil producing countries are likely to play a major role for decades to come. The International Energy Agency estimates that the demand for fossil fuels will continue to increase everywhere except North America, Europe, and Japan until at least 2030. Additionally, the increasing volatility of fossil fuel prices and the pressure on private investors to reduce their assets in this sector could have the adverse effect of increasing, at least temporarily, the power of large producers such as Saudi Arabia or Russia, which can easily increase their production capacity if necessary.
The geopolitical boomerang
What most strongly characterizes the current moment is the hard and radical challenge to the political order that came out of the Second World War — and even beyond that, as Western dominance has lasted for five centuries. This is apparent in the case of Russia, with its violent aggression against Ukraine, which is taking the form of an imperial war with nuclear undertones. Russia — whose population has fallen by half since the Soviet era and whose GDP is no larger than Spain’s — has the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons and enormous reserves of gas, coal, and other raw materials and grains which allows it to exploit Europe’s energy dependence and to influence the world prices of raw materials.
This challenge is also palpable from China’s side. Its exceptional growth during the years 2000-2010 and the United States’ willingness to fiercely defend its global supremacy have made this pair a strategic rivalry for some time to come. Now the world’s largest emitter with around 30% of CO2 emissions, China surpassed the United States in 2007, nearly 20 years earlier than predicted when climate negotiations began. That same year, President Hu Jin Tao introduced the term “ecological civilization” to define a new political philosophy for the country. He inscribed the new philosophy in a great narrative of progress that includes an ancestral agricultural civilization, the industrial civilization established by Mao Zedong, and the material civilization promoted by Deng Xiaoping. In a China fraught with rivalry between parts of the state apparatus and the Communist Party, or between central and regional powers, this unifying project took on a dual function under Xi Jinping. Internally, it has become more and more of a true green authoritarianism 8 , which operates an alignment of techno-political interests of power with environmental policy. This coercive state environmentalism has non-environmental aims: the centralization of power and the suppression of individual rights and public participation. The response to the most recent waves of the Covid-19 pandemic in Shanghai and other cities is a sinister example of this authoritarianism for “the good of the people”.
On the geopolitical level, the ecological civilization project is paired with a grandiose operation to counterbalance the Western order and ensure the energy security of Chinese expansion. The “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI), announced in 2013 to revive the ancient Silk Road and given a “green” element in 2021, has quickly become one of the largest operations ever conceived in terms of infrastructure and development programs, with colossal ambitions for trade and commerce 9 . It comprises a land-based economic corridor that is in fact made up of multiple routes which, on the one hand, all start from the western province of Xinjiang — which is home to the Uyghur people and it is easy to understand why China considers any resistance in this province to be a major threat to its security — and, on the other, run through Central Asia to Russia and Europe. This corridor is complemented by a maritime route along the coast of South Asia (Pakistan, Burma, Sri Lanka) to Africa and the Middle East. In 2015, 60 countries were part of this initiative; by 2020, there were 130. The strategic partnership with Central Asian countries, rich in oil and natural gas, means more secure transport of these resources, free from American interference in maritime routes. This financing of physical infrastructure (energy projects, railroads, ports, etc.), as well as social, education and health programs, is done in exchange for the rights to use and exploit resources and to control local economies, often for decades. For several years now, Chinese investment banks have been boasting that they promote green principles. But, as with similar claims by their Western and international counterparts, this includes financing coal-fired power plants, mines, hydraulic dams and diversions of riverbeds, often with disastrous ecological and social consequences. With the BRI, China is also strengthening its ties with oil-producing countries. Citing the example of the United Arab Emirates, Li and Shapiro write that with this partnership, China is looking for oil and has digital technology, while the UAE is looking for post-oil solutions, and both of these authoritarian states share an interest in new surveillance technology that can be used on their citizens 10 . Within this new geopolitical configuration, the issues of sovereignty are becoming central: from the American campaign against the Chinese telecom giant Huawei to the exclusion of Iranian and Russian banks from the Swift banking communication system, attempts to disconnect certain parts of the world from some markets and services, but also to forge new links or to obtain supplies elsewhere, are redrawing the map of a globalization that is now variable in geometry and subject to the supremacy of politics. At the same time, competition for market share, control of cutting edge technologies, as well as access to resources and military technologies is becoming increasingly fierce and risks locking the planet into a permanent dynamic of growth and aggravation.
Europe, our fragile hope
This systemic rivalry is the current geopolitical backdrop against which the climate drama is unfolding. Conversely, the climate is becoming one of the playing fields for the confrontation between political and societal models. Successfully decarbonizing, reconverting industrial sectors, positioning oneself on tomorrow’s markets, but also leading the world in operating social change and shaping society — all these challenges are tests to determine which model will be best able to navigate the rough waters of the 21st century.
In this competition, the European Union is the only major player today that is at once democratic, has social protection policies worthy of the name, and has demonstrated credible commitment to climate policy in the long term. Since the 1990s, the Union has reduced emissions by one third. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, it is the only region in the world that has reached, and even surpassed, its reductions target for 2020 and is also on track to meet 2030 targets 11 . With 450 million inhabitants, it is the world’s largest economy, and its technological, production, consumption and lifestyle choices have a global impact. In other words, Europe is our only fragile hope, imperfect but indispensable and extremely valuable in the race for an ecologically, socially, and politically livable planet.
At the same time, the road ahead of us is long. Even if Europe only emits 8% of global GHG emissions, its emissions remain at 8 tons per person, which is four times higher than in India 12 . In 2019, Ursula von der Leyen’s new European Commission launched a European “Green Deal”, which combined climate targets, green industrial policies and measures for a just transition. This project seems to have been spared from being completely dismantled in the face of Covid-19 and war. It is now taking shape in the form of a requirement to invest at least 30% of the €800 billion NextGenerationEU reconstruction fund (between 2021-2027) into climate action. A “just transition” mechanism of €100 billion has been created to accompany the conversion of industrial sectors and support the most affected regions until 2050. Furthermore, in June 2021, the European Union adopted the two binding targets of reducing GHGs by 55% by 2030 (compared to 1990) and to reach climate neutrality by 2050. To implement its objectives, the Commission is proposing the “Fit for 55” package, which contains measures to include new sectors such as maritime transport, road transport, and construction in the European carbon market as well as to tighten its quotas, sectoral regulations (such as a de-facto ban on new internal combustion engine vehicles in 2035), and burden-sharing between member states.
Despite pressure from lobbies and a succession of crises for more than a decade, Europe has not, for now, veered off course and is seen as the least bad student when it comes to transforming its economy 13 . Historically, what has driven this climate ambition has been not only the actions of certain member states, but also the Commission’s desire for power. Climate issues have allowed the EU to assume new areas of authority and to have a say in strategic matters such as energy and industrial policies. But the war in Ukraine has exposed the flaws in this complicated model of joint governance between Europe and its member states which combines a desire for centralization, competition between national egos, and the hegemony of a free market ideology. By largely ignoring geopolitical considerations, this has led to a growing, and now very problematic, dependence on Russian gas. Similarly, this policy risks exposing Europe in the future to new vulnerabilities with regard to China’s renewable energy, battery, and rare earth super-power. Indeed, Denmark, and especially Germany, were at the forefront of developing renewables in the early 2000s. But, as Daniel Yergin writes, “what catapulted solar into the mainstream was the marriage of German environmental politics with Chinese manufacturing prowess.” 14 It should be added that this marriage has been at the expense of the European solar industry. After complaints of unfair competition from European producers in 2012, Europe made a political choice with far-reaching consequences, deciding not to protect its industry against the price dumping of Chinese producers. With state support, they were able to produce at a much lower cost making it possible to lower the costs of the transition in Europe, especially in Germany. This was a blessing for consumers! But for European producers, it was a massacre, with the loss of 50,000 jobs out of more than 100,000 in Germany alone. The result is the concentration of production in China, which now dominates 70% of the photovoltaic market 15 .
In this geopolitical overview — which is hardly complete — we must mention a matter that will be important in the future: Africa. In terms of climate, time is short for this continent, as it is elsewhere. It is the only part of the world where much development is yet to come and which has so much natural wealth, sun, and wind, all while suffering from a notorious lack of food independence. At the United Nations, nearly forty countries from this continent (as well as from Latin America, including Brazil) did not join in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine; they chose to abstain alongside China and India. For several years, China and then Russia have sought to strengthen their ties with Africa, holding out the prospect of lucrative economic and commercial ventures for African countries on very different terms from those of the former European colonizers. The presence of Russian security forces, the aggressive and efficient presence of Chinese companies, as well as Russian exports of fossil fuels, grain, and fertilizers — in short, the complexity of the economic interdependence and exploitation of resources between Russia and China on the one hand, and Africa (or Brazil) on the other, largely explain these votes. Europe, and France in particular, should have a significant relationship to develop with Africa given its geographical proximity and linguistic links, and this despite its difficult colonial past, but it does not devote sufficient resources to this. One example among many others: in the debate on the French energy mix, which is focused on nuclear power, there is never any mention of the need to step up initiatives with Africa on renewable energy and access to energy. Yet we are faced with a strategic issue of climate stabilization, which Europe must seize.
Neither the re-enchantment of capitalism, nor the mysticism of the State
In Europe, as in America, there are two main approaches to climate policy which coexist today.
The soft transition through markets model
The first model is that of a soft transition through markets, innovation, and green finance, which currently dominates global governance and is pervasive among political and economic elites in Europe and the United States. This model relies on economic incentives, the leverage of private investment and voluntary action by companies through the strength of transparency, reporting, and green taxonomies. This is the spirit of former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney’s “Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero”, which boasts of bringing together 450 of the world’s largest investors managing over $150 trillion in financial assets. The initiative is based on the great narrative of a “tragedy of the horizon” leading to the dysfunction of financial markets as being at the heart of the climate crisis. In this narrative, the failure can be explained primarily by a lack of information on climate risks and perverse incentives that favor the short term and could therefore be corrected. Carney proposes a combination of reporting requirements for companies, green taxonomies for financial markets, and policy measures to “de-risk” low-carbon investments. If reformed in this way, financial markets would cease to be a problem and become the transition’s greatest allies. This narrative forms the basis of what Daniela Gabor calls the “Wall Street Climate Consensus” 16 . According to this perspective, large investment funds, which are more inclined to consider the long-term, could take the lead in the transition. The Bank of England with its new environmental mandate, the European Central Bank with its climate roadmap, and the European Commission with its green taxonomy support this policy, as do large private asset managers such as BlackRock and its chief executive Larry Fink.
But the great narrative which underlies this policy is increasingly challenged by the facts. Despite all the initiatives to create more transparency and lofty speeches about corporate environmental responsibility and divestment, fossil fuel companies are thriving. The post-Covid recovery and the war in Ukraine have even led to a new rush for black gold and soaring profits for mining and oil giants. In the first trimester of 2022, Shell made $9,1 billion, its largest profits since 2008, and ExxonMobil doubled its profits compared to the previous year 17 .The “Big Three” of major asset managers, far from accelerating the transition of the firms whose assets they hold, have been using their influence to block any decisive shift towards sustainability 18 . Furthermore, apart from the climate champions of Silicon Valley such as Apple, Google, and Microsoft — who see a series of future “smart” markets in the low-carbon transition, rich in data and monitoring technologies — the old economy is faring well and carrying on. The “carbon coalition” lobbies continue to block the transition or slow it by borrowing from the tobacco industry’s playbook 19 .
The second model: Green New Deal or Big Green State
In order to break the impasse of an economy of promise caught in eternal loops of lofty announcements without any real action, social movements and parts of the European and American left are now promoting another model: that of a Keynesian transformation propelled by a strong state that would combine regulations, strategic investments, and social policies. This is the Green (New) Deal, or what Daniela Gabor calls the “Big Green State”. This second approach would aim to achieve ecological and social objectives through massive public investment in infrastructure and forms of green production (instead of de-risking private capital) and a just transition policy. It is difficult to see how this Big Green State could come about, as much in the United States — where President Biden’s Build Back Better proposal has long been blocked in the Senate — as in Europe — which may look like a good student in terms of objectives and green investment, but which is not a centralized state and, given how things stand, cannot invest in a coordinated and strategic manner without the consent of member states. Biden’s climate plan, renamed the Inflation Reduction Act to help persuade hesitant democratic senators, was finally adopted by the Senate this summer. Although it mainly relies on tax incentives and not on constraints, experts consider it to be a major breakthrough. It provides for investments of up to $360 billion in renewables and low-carbon technologies (which is huge) that could lead to a significant drop in U.S. emissions by 2030, which some estimate to be 35% to 45% below 2005 levels. Nevertheless, the plan still allows for the exploration of fossil resources and increased investment in hydraulic fracturing for the production of shale oil and gas 20 . As a result, the legislation constitutes a continuation of the dominant approach of energy additions and accumulations, and demonstrates the difficulty of implementing a real policy of reducing the production and consumption of fossil fuels 21 .
On a more fundamental level, the model of the Big Green State still entails substituting one environmentally destructive technology for another, consuming just as much and imagining that everything can be replaced: renewables for coal, ammonia for natural gas, hydrogen for oil, etc. It carries with it the risk of a new extractivism aimed at monopolizing the resources needed for the transition — rare earths, copper, zinc, cobalt, lithium — particularly in the countries of the South. Such a policy has its limits, as shown by the soaring prices of these raw materials in the last few years, which the International Energy Agency predicts will continue. In other words, while the state may appear as a solution for some, it is also a battleground for conflicting interests and an actor deeply rooted in the paradigm of growth and productivism. The state therefore plays an ambiguous role in the ecological transformation.
A final point must draw our attention. If the Covid-19 crisis and the war in Ukraine were windows of opportunity to accelerate the low-carbon transition, we must admit that these opportunities have not yet been seized. Quite the contrary. During the crisis, political and economic elites resorted to their traditional alliances and to tried and tested routines, despite the climate emergency. This demonstrates the limits of an approach led by markets and technology, as well as by states and governments. The possible alignment of the climate problem with a new geopolitical paradigm should not lead to pinning all hopes on a Big Green and Keynesian state. From an analytical point of view, it is not enough to examine what governments should do, and what instruments they should implement. It is also necessary to explain how, in what world, and under what precise social conditions it would be plausible for them to do so.
Integrating structural policies and subversive strategies
Wondering why there was no social movement for the climate, the sociologist Ulrich Beck asked in 2010 “Why is there no storming of the Bastille because of the environmental destruction threatening mankind, why no Red October of ecology” 22 . If he were still with us, he would have followed with great interest how, barely a decade later, the strike of a Swedish school girl became a catalyst for such a movement to emerge in Europe, led by young people with the Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion groups. How the mobilization against the Keystone XL pipeline in the United States laid the groundwork for the Sunrise Movement and its demands to combine ecological and social policies, and how environmental activism in Latin America and elsewhere in the global South has gained momentum and converged with a critique of extractivist and climate-destructive development models. Ulrich Beck connected the absence of mass mobilization for the climate to the hegemony of an expert and elitist discourse that he considered to be out of touch with citizens’ concerns and social issues. He would undoubtedly have noted the frequent occurrence of the slogan “follow the science” in the Fridays for Future demonstrations, but also the rise of demands for a “just transition”, which establish a connection between social and ecological issues and align the reduction of inequalities with the fight against global warming.
Beyond states and markets, civil societies around the world are mobilizing. Their mobilization for the climate takes the form of demonstrations, but also of legal actions against governments and companies, local experiments in new ways of living, and the creation of grassroots economic solidarity networks. As a result, individuals, energy cooperatives, and local authorities dominate new renewable energy installations in Germany; meat consumption in France has dropped by 10 kg per person in 20 years; bicycling saw a steep surge during Covid and is increasingly competing with the car in cities, while sales of second-hand clothes are eating away at the growth of fast fashion. Of course, these developments raise questions of scaling up and generalizing beyond the kernels of transformation amongst educated and urban elites. They must be accompanied by classic social movements and backed up by public action. But they are already opening up new horizons by questioning the dogma of growth and the well-trodden paths of industrial and consumerist development. This is significant, because underneath the obvious gap between stated objectives and implementation measures in global climate policy — the famous “emissions gap” — lies a deeper schism that reflects the ways in which the climate problem has historically been thought, framed and discussed. The framing as an environmental issue in particular (and not as a geopolitical one, or as a problem of industrial strategy or a challenge to dominant economic and social models) has led to ineffective policy implementation by entrusting climate policy to organizations with limited mandates and no real handle on the root causes of the problem. Some progress is visible today, notably in the form of a broader approach to the climate policy, a partial decompartmentalization of climate governance institutions and a politicization of the problem by social movements. But there are also new, yawning gaps, resulting from the mismatch between a governance based on consensus, incantatory rituals and distant promises, and an old world of fossil capital that perpetuates itself through the crises.
To seize the current political constellation and the possible convergence between geopolitical and climatic imperatives to reduce our fossil fuel dependence, we first need to change our intellectual paradigm when thinking about climate policies. We believe it is essential to combine structural and material strategies, aimed at replacing fossil infrastructures, transforming production methods and building new green economic sectors, alongside more subversive 23 cultural and societal strategies that broaden horizons and stimulate the imagination by fundamentally questioning industrial modernity and its global capitalist organization. At a time when, in France, the notion of ecological planning is beginning to be debated 24 when intellectual proposals aim to inject a state-centered realpolitik into ecological thinking 25 , it appears all the more important to not just address governments or focus on top-down measures. We therefore propose four ways to rethink climate policy, directed at researchers, activists, and politicians alike.
First, any policy is now a climate policy
In light of the growing urgency and increasingly visible effects of ongoing climate change, all policy decisions as well as any non-decisions — including in areas that at first glance seem far removed from the problem — have consequences on the future of our climate. These consequences must be made explicit, as well as the links between climate and other issues. For example, a restrictive European policy in terms of global health and access to vaccines weakens the trust needed to build North-South alliances for low-carbon development. Substituting Russian oil and gas with imports from other equally undemocratic countries risks exposing us to new geopolitical boomerangs that will further complicate future climate policies. In other words, we cannot separate these issues and shield people from the new geopolitical and climate disorder, as most European leaders are promising today. We must clearly state the choices and the risks. Let us therefore appeal for Churchillian or Rooseveltian speeches that dramatize the challenges and clarify the options rather than reassuring speeches that blind us to the dangers. It is not enough to add new sources of energy to the energy mix while leaving existing one untouched, nor without addressing in greater depth the causes of staggeringly high levels of energy consumption. We must combines strategies of acceleration and deceleration, invest in innovation and use the power of markets to develop alternatives, but also aim for greater sobriety and scale back the productivist frenzy in the advanced economies.
Second, instead of seeking full consensus, we must pursue strategic alliances
The climate problem is too important, too vital even, to wait for everyone to agree before moving forward. It is not a classic political problem that can be resolved by a corporatist agreement between diverging interests; it is now a matter of survival.
Instead of seeking a middle ground, antagonisms must be clarified, so that morally unacceptable positions can be identified and isolated. This means that at the international level, the consensus-based decision-making process of the UN should no longer be the main focus. We know that such a model favors those who do not necessarily want to reach an agreement 26 — i.e. the oil kingdoms and other large fossil fuel producers. Since a change in voting rules under the Climate Convention is highly unlikely, global climate policy must now extend beyond this framework. The good news is that decarbonization is probably less dependent on there being a universal framework than the originators of the UN process assumed. Long thought of as a classic case of the prisoner’s dilemma (where it is essential to ensure the cooperation of all parties), it is in fact more like a conflict of distribution between the winners and losers of the transition 27 , where a dynamic initiated by a few can pull others along 28 . It may therefore be preferable to favor ambition over compromise, and to create more limited agreements between those who are willing to go further on a given matter. More broadly, it is necessary to shake the illusion of a “non-punitive” ecology that would create win-win situations everywhere. We must confront the necessary conflicts head on while supporting the losers of structural transformations wherever possible. Finally, for social movements, it is not enough to have the be right about the facts or have the best argument to persuade policymakers. It is just as important to create favorable power relations at all levels of global society.
Third, instead of following imaginary “optimal” trajectories, the climate transformation must build on existing societal dynamics
“Policy is the art of the possible rather than the calculation of the optimal.” 29 This insight contrasts with the economists’ approach that has long dominated climate debates, and which consists of calculating optimal trajectories of emissions reduction in terms of costs, either by a global calculation of damages from global warming and costs of climate measures, or in relation to a given policy objective (2°C, 1.5°C). The choice of policy measures follows the same logic of economic efficiency. But instead of dreaming of imposing a global price on carbon throughout the world or planning optimal transitions over a 50-year period — how can we expect future governments to follow through? — it is now important to seize existing present-day opportunities and gradually open up the space of possibilities. This means focusing on the genuinely political dimensions of the problem: opposing lobbies, along with building alliances and societal support for the transformation. For example, the costs of climate policies are less of an issue at the aggregate level (as suggested by economic models); politically and socially, they matter insofar as they affect specific, often already disadvantaged, populations and increase social tensions. Faced with profound uncertainties about geopolitical and technological developments, operating the low-carbon transformation increasingly resembles navigating by sight in a field of shifting forces, which of course requires setting long term objectives, but also adapting to the terrain, securing gains, and possibly straying from the most direct path when obstacles or opportunities arise in order to advance in other areas.
Fourth, we need to narrow the horizons and localize the stakes.
This last point directly follows from the previous ones. Let us restate that securing a global consensus can no longer be a priority. We must act wherever advances appear possible, by creating momentum for change at the local level and in the territories, at the national and European levels, as well as through international sector-specific initiatives. Very long-term objectives can be useful for simulating debates on climate futures and climate justice issues, or formulating legal claims. But they are not adapted to the political perspectives of democratic societies. It is therefore necessary to shrink the time scales of climate policy and to focus on both the short and medium term.
In short, we argue that the current brutal and uncertain geopolitical context exposes the impasses of an illusory strategy focused on the cooperation of all, on market forces and voluntary commitments, in the face of the climate emergency. Instead, we are advocating for a broader political strategy that views the climate issue as the great societal conflict of our time and considers the economy, the law, the state and its apparatus, and the various UN arenas, as sub-fields of this conflict. The contours of this strategy are currently taking shape in various struggles and initiatives around the world. It gives a key role to social movements and civil societies, to tactics of bottom-up pressure and to the building of strategic alliances, including within the state and at the local level. Economic measures and technological innovation are necessary but insufficient to overcome the numerous obstacles that persist today at all levels. A new climate policy must therefore broaden its scope and harness existing societal dynamics in order to move forward.
- Cullenward et Victor, Making climate policy work, John Wiley & Sons, 2020.
- Aykut, Dahan, Gouverner le climat. 20 ans de négociations internationales, Presses de Sciences Po, 2015.
- Aykut, et al. Circles of Global Climate Governance. Power, Performance and Contestation at the UN Climate Conference COP26 in Glasgow, Hamburg,Center for Sustainable Society Research, 2022.
- IRENA, Renewable Power Generation Costs in 2020, International Renewable Energy Agency, Abu Dhabi, 2021, p.14.
- Bordoff and O’Sullivan, “Green Upheaval: The New Geopolitics of Energy Essays”, Foreign Affairs, n°101, 2022, p. 69.
- Y. Li and J. Shapiro, China Goes Green, Polity, 2020.
- Armando, E., Comprendre les Routes de la soie de l’énergie, Green, n°1, 2021, p. 90-97.
- Li Y. and Shapiro J., La transition écologique chinoise : à quel coût ?, Green, n°1, 2021, p. 116-120.
- UNEP Emissions Gap Report 2021: The heat is still on – A world of climate promises not delivered, Nairobi, Kenya,United Nations Environment Programme, 2021.
- All data taken from Eurostat: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/
- von Homeyer, et al. “EU climate and energy governance in times of crisis: towards a new agenda”, Journal of European Public Policy, 28(7), 2021, p. 959-979.
- Yergin, Daniel. The new map: Energy, climate, and the clash of nations. Penguin UK, 2020, p. 395p
- Regional distribution of solar module production. In: statista.com.
- Gabor “The Wall Street Consensus”, Development and Change, 52(3), 2021, p. 429-459.
- Golland, et al. “Proxy voting for the earth system: institutional shareholder governance of global tipping elements”, 2022, URL: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4067103.
- Cory, et al. “Supply Chain Linkages and the Extended Carbon Coalition”, American Journal of Political Science, 65(1), 2021, p. 69-87.
- Cf. Interview with Laurence Tubiana, Le Monde, Thursday August 11, 2022
- Fressoz “Pour une histoire des symbioses énergétiques et matérielles”, Annales des Mines – Responsabilité et environnement, vol. 101, n°1, 2021, p.7-10.
- Beck, “Climate for Change, or How to create a Green Modernity?”, Theory, Culture & Society, 27, 2010, p. 254.
- Andreas Malm, Théorie et pratique de la violence du carbone, Politiques de l’interrègne, le Grand Continent, Gallimard, 2022.
- Pour la planification écologique”, Le Grand Continent, 05.05.2022, URL : https://legrandcontinent.eu/fr/2022/05/05/un-etat-pour-la-planification-ecologique
- Le Grand Continent, 18.03.2022, URL : https://legrandcontinent.eu/fr/2022/03/18/la-naissance-de-lecologie-de-guerre/
- Aklin et Mildenberger “Prisoners of the Wrong Dilemma: Why Distributive Conflict, Not Collective Action, Characterizes the Politics of Climate Change”, Global Environmental Politics, 20(4), 2020, p. 4-27.
- Hale “Catalytic Cooperation”, ibid.73-98.
- Geels, et al. “The Socio-Technical Dynamics of Low-Carbon Transitions”, Joule, 1(3), 2017, p. 463-479.
To cite the article
Stefan C. Aykut, Amy Dahan, The Geopolitical Boomerang: Can We Still Hope to Meet the Climate Challenge?, Sep 2022, 31-38.