Climate Change and the hope conundrum (Part 1 of 2)

Facing up to climate change reality, the emerging political order and the hope conundrum – a review of Climate Leviathan by Wainwright and Mann. 

By Dr. Morgan Phillips (UK Co-Director, The Glacier Trust)

[This is part one of a two part article. Part two]


A very bold aspiration

The 2015 UNFCCC Paris Agreement contained this headline aspiration:

Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.
(Article 2, para, 1a, UNFCCC (2015) Adoption of the Paris Agreement)

It is a very bold aspiration, perhaps even a fantasy. It would take a series of scientific miracles and/or a huge political upheaval to limit temperature increases to ‘well below 2°C’.

As many campaigners (and indeed the official UNFCCC ‘Adoption of the Paris Agreement’ document itself)[1] have noted, this aspiration does not align with what signatory countries have stated as their intended ‘nationally determined contributions’ (NDCs) to the global effort to limit climate change.

Two years on, there is little to suggest the NDCs will align any time soon. The pathway most nations have taken equates to allowing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to continue to rise until 2030 on the assumption that futuristic technologies will facilitate a cliff edge drop off in emissions between 2030 and 2050. 

There is no harm in having lofty aspirations, but we must remain realistic as to what is possible so as not to fool ourselves and others into believing that climate change is under control. Or indeed that even a 2 °C increase is tolerable.

In this article, I draw on Climate Leviathan, a new book by Professors Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright[2], to examine three things.

  1. How climate change might shape world politics in the coming decades.

  2. The UNFCCC process and how to relate to it as the ‘only game in town’.

  3. The long-term legitimacy of current messages of hope put forward by the climate change movement.

We have so far seen global mean surface temperature increase by around 0.7 °C since 1900, with a lot of that warming coming in the last fifty years. The impacts are already significant. Further rises in temperature are going to intensify the suffering and damage. It is always worth sombrely reminding ourselves that even if we somehow do limit warming to an increase of between 1.5 - 2 °C, millions of people will still die as a direct consequence. Despite being our best hope, 1.5 °C of warming is not a good outcome for the planet or the many poor people on it.

Figure 1: Fossil Fuel emissions and temperature increase projections 1900-2100. Adapted from Meinshausen et al (2009)

Reality bites: accepting 3 °C of warming

Sadly, what now looks most likely is warming of at least 3 °C, quite possibly a lot more; this seems almost unavoidable. I didn’t want to believe this; I wanted to believe that humanity would come together to prevent it, but I can’t deny it any longer. My mind was finally made up at a guest lecture I attended recently at UCL’s Energy Institute. Professor Kevin Anderson is one of the few Climate Scientists courageous enough to speak out publicly about the contradictions in the Paris Agreement[3]. He highlights the GHG emissions that planned and newly built large-scale infrastructure projects are locking in[4] and questions the false hope that NGOs, politicians and campaigners are spinning about Climate Change mitigation technologies. His lecture at UCL was filmed, but does not yet seem to be available, he has given similar talks elsewhere and several are available on YouTube (Uppsala, Manchester, Dublin).

In short, Anderson’s stark message is that there are no technological silver bullets on the horizon; at least none that can be taken seriously. He is most scathing about BECCS (Bioenergy, combined with carbon capture and storage). The 1.5 – 2 °C aspiration in the Paris Agreement is based on an assumption that BECCS and a stream of Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs) will become available, at scale, in the coming decades. It is on this assumption that the blue line in the top graph in figure 1 above (and the NDCs that prop up the Paris Agreement) is based. Without a large-scale deployment of BECCS[5] and a dubious bunch of other untested NETs the blue line is not feasible[6].

Things might not get as bad as the red line, but carbon emissions will either tail off very slowly, or go on increasing. Anderson makes a very convincing case against the prospects of BECCS and NETs as our technological saviours. By taking the approach we are now (i.e. putting too many eggs in the NETs basket) we are setting ourselves up to fail and on a path to 3 °C or more of warming.

The high emitters

Environmentalists, like other campaigners, are predisposed to end talks and lectures on a positive note; a hopeful message. This is what Anderson does and continued to do at UCL. He is still hopeful that we can limit warming to 2 °C, but what he calls for amounts to an economic and political revolution. He admits it is a slim hope.

For Anderson, rapid and deep decarbonisation (the falling blue line in figure 1) is possible with behaviour change at a mass scale. The world’s wealthiest 10% of people are responsible for 50% of the world’s carbon emissions[7]. The implication is clear; if they cut their emissions to be more closely aligned to the rest of the world, the carbon savings would be huge[8]. So, if the highest emitters are persuaded to dramatically curtail their emissions, 2 °C is still possible, ‘just’ (as Anderson couches it.)

Figure 2: Global Income deciles and associated lifestyle consumption emissions.
(Oxfam, 2015)

I want to believe in this too and join in with Professor Anderson’s hope, but to do so would mean denying everything I know about politics, economics, history and psychology.

The evidence from three decades or more of environmental education and campaigning shows that the wealthy are prepared to make small behaviour changes - lightbulbs, recycling and shorter showers; and electric cars, solar panels and giant batteries for those who can afford it - but larger changes are only enacted by the committed few.

Against the current political backdrop, even if Corbyn-style social democracy takes a hold, this is highly unlikely to change. Growth based capitalist economics remains at the heart of every mainstream political party’s strategy. We, the wealthy 10% of the world, will go on consuming; states will go on sanctioning fossil fuel extraction; temperatures will rise.

Whichever way I look at it, 3 °C or more of warming is inevitable. To deny that is to deny the evidence of climate science and political history. I know that is a bleak message, but it is essential to accept it if we want to understand where we are headed and what we might do in response.

Climate Change in the driving seat

Projections of the impacts climate change will have on ecosystems, people and the atmosphere are regularly published by scientists, NGOs and, periodically by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)[9]. These projections are essential at local, national and international levels to help the design of climate change adaptation strategies.

Conversely, projections of the impacts climate change will have on politics are almost non-existent.  This, however, is an area that requires study and greater understanding - especially if we are pinning our hopes on a political solution.

It is fair to say that, to date, politics and political decisions have impacted upon climate change to a far greater extent than climate change has impacted upon politics. That is to say that (although the threat of climate change has had a growing influence in the political arena) politics and policy making, when looked at in the round, has more often been a stimulus for net increases in greenhouse gas emissions and an intensification of the threat of climate change.

However, as the threat becomes real and the impacts of climate change manifest themselves in ever more damaging and frequent ways, it could well become the central issue in policy making at all levels of government. There will come a time when we will see environmental change driving politics, rather than politics driving environmental change.

So, what are the projections for the impacts climate change will have on politics? Let us turn now to Wainwright and Mann’s argument in Climate Leviathan (2018):

Though we contend with climate change now, its most significant ecological and political consequences are still to come. The challenge of analysing and anticipating those consequences is enormous. This is partly because both the planet’s ecologies and its politics are extraordinarily complex and subject to an almost infinite variety of influences, and partly because climate change is changing what it means to be a human on Earth.
(Wainwright and Mann, 2018, p. x)

It is with this acknowledgement of uncertainty that Professor’s Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann and set out on their exploration of political theory of our planetary future[10]. Their book, Climate Leviathan, takes its title from one of the four possible global political orders that might emerge in the coming decades. ‘Climate Leviathan’ is the one they see as most likely, though it will be stalked by ‘Climate Behemoth’ and ‘Climate Mao’.

Figure 3: Four potential social formations
‘A capitalist Climate Leviathan; an anti-capitalist, state centred Climate Mao; a reactionary capitalist Climate Behemoth; and an anti-capitalist, anti-sovereign Climate X
(Wainwright and Mann, 2018, p. 29)

 The fourth, perhaps least likely, but most desirable, ‘Climate X’; describes a world where climate justice campaigners have won; capitalism has been transcended; power and democracy are decentralised; and fossil fuel use has been voluntarily rejected by the majority of the world’s population.

A transition to something like Climate X is, possibly, what Professor Anderson and others are basing their hopes on, it also echoes the potential shift to anarchist politics described by Carne Ross in the recent documentary ‘Accidental Anarchist’. It remains a future worth struggling for, both as an end in itself and as a response to climate change (however catastrophic climate change ends up being). Striving for that future may also feel like a means to maintaining emotional wellbeing.

The prospect of planetary sovereignty

Climate X is, however, Wainwright and Mann’s own attempt to end with a hopeful message. They admit themselves that it is a utopian vision - not impossible, but not likely. Climate Leviathan, they argue, is the more probable outcome.

As shown in figure 3 above, Climate Leviathan is capitalist and suggests ‘planetary sovereignty’. Predicting capitalism as the dominant and ongoing global economic model is not revelatory. What is, is the idea that sovereignty will be held at a planetary, rather than national scale. The proposition here is that power (in the coming few decades) will become concentrated in the hands of one supreme global power. A body with the authority to take decisions that impact the entire world, whether (or not) the rest of the world wants them to. Wainwright and Mann argue that it is the transboundary nature of climate change, combined with the current trajectory of global politics, the race for ‘space control’ and the necessarily global scale of atmospheric geoengineering technologies that will lead us to this end state of planetary sovereignty.

Two configurations of planetary sovereignty are mapped out. US led Climate Leviathan would be capitalist, China led Climate Mao would tend toward a command and anti-capitalist economy. Wainwright and Mann reason that Climate Leviathan is more likely, currently, than Climate Mao. This is on the basis that the United States (possibly with support from the EU, India and other capitalist states) remains the most likely to achieve the geopolitical power necessary to achieve planetary sovereignty. This is not to say that the Leviathan will definitely be US led, there is a possibility that another power may supersede it. So, with whom planetary sovereignty eventually sits is less predictable than the central proposition that a capitalist planetary sovereign will eventually emerge. The case made by Wainwright and Mann is compelling on that front.

Of the ‘anti planetary sovereignty’ alternatives described, Climate Behemoth currently resonates, but not in a pleasant way. Wainwright and Mann introduce it like this:

Climate Behemoth stands in … stark opposition to Climate Leviathan’s planetary sovereignty. It is not hard to find evidence of this reactionary tendency today, epitomized in the continued influence of climate change denial in mainstream political discourse, especially in the United States.
(Wainwright and Mann, 2018, p. 44)

Behemoths value national sovereignty and freedom of the individual. This sort of nationalist populism has gained ground in recent years, in the USA, Turkey, Egypt, India, Brazil and across several European nations, most prominently through Brexit in the UK. It is reactionary, opposed (amongst other things) to transnational alliances (see Brexit) and the UNFCCC process that it interprets (quite possibly correctly) as an embryonic form of global government; the Climate Leviathan terrifies it. Wainwright and Mann, however, feel that this reactionary populism will be short lived:

Behemoth’s constant failure to offer a coherent alternative to liberal capitalism’s crises – witness the political calamities under Donald Trump and Theresa May – will limit the medium and long-term political force of Climate Behemoth, as it has hobbled all Behemoths throughout history.
(Wainwright and Mann, 2018, p. 45)

To anyone who cares about the natural wonders of planet Earth, Climate Behemoth is an appalling prospect. It suggests unrestricted natural resource exploitation, inward looking fortress nationalism, conflict and runaway climate change; Neoliberal capitalism unleashed and on steroids.

In contrast to Climate Behemoth, Climate Leviathan seems appealing, hence the resigned acceptance many environmentalists feel towards the UNFCCC process. It is flawed, but it is the only apparent alternative; the only game in town.

No summary can do full justice to the arguments Wainwright and Mann make, I urge interested readers to study the book in full. Hopefully though, I can provide a primer. In the passages that follow, I aim to highlight the key characteristics of the Climate Leviathan and its drawbacks.

What we call Climate Leviathan exists to the extent that some sovereign exists who can … declare [a global] emergency, and decide who may emit carbon and who cannot.
(Wainwright and Mann, 2018, p. 29)

They draw on Mike Davis’ 2010 book ‘Who will build the ark?’ to elaborate on this and to posit what might happen in the field of Climate Change adaptation:

The possibility of rapid, global carbon mitigation as a climate change abatement strategy has passed. The world’s elites, at least, appear to have abandoned it – if they ever took it seriously. In 2010, Mike Davis imagined a ‘not improbable scenario’ in which mitigation ‘would be tacitly abandoned …. in favour of accelerated investment in selective adaptation for Earth’s first-class passengers.’ His predication may prove prescient.
(Wainwright and Mann, 2018, p. 28)

Stories of Silicon Valley billionaires acquiring land and property in isolated New Zealand has already been identified as an example of this mindset taking hold. 

Citing Duvall and Havercroft[11] Wainwright and Mann (p. 146 – 148) explore the plausible emergence of an international cold war for ‘space control’ i.e. a situation where one nation establishes a space weapons[12] capability strong enough to strike any target on Earth from space and prevent any other countries from using space.

Duvall and Havercroft argue that if a nation (most likely the USA) achieves this level of space control then, for the first time ever, a state (or institution) would meet the Weberian criteria of statehood:

‘That institution which claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a given territory’ – in a situation in which the ‘given territory’ is the entire planet.
(Wainwright and Mann, 2018, p. 148)

If this is starting to read a bit like a Star Wars plot, please bear with me. Wainwright and Mann use this discussion of space control as an analogy, for what might come to pass with a Climate Leviathan world order.

It sounds like conspiracy theory, but the fact is that something very like space weapons will be mobilized to defend life on Earth: atmospheric geoengineering.
(Wainwright and Mann, 2018, p. 148)

The implications of this, if true, are highly significant. Atmospheric geoengineering is the most likely technological - global scale - ‘solution’ to rising temperatures. Put simply, it would involve the injection of solar reflecting sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere to artificially increase atmospheric albedo. The effect would be global, much like the eruption of a super volcano, but not necessarily evenly distributed geographically. Because the impacts are global, a global authority would be needed. This body would have to have enough power to decide that the situation is sufficiently grave and then what the correct dose of aerosols should be. A huge responsibility. Only a body with a legitimate or powerful enough level of planetary sovereignty would be capable of this.

A similar scenario exists when we consider BECCS and other carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. If CCS is to be scaled up to the levels implied by the Paris Agreement, we would need to deposit ‘gigatons of carbon in the Earth’s crust for thousands of years [which] will involve considerable geological engineering’ (Wainwright and Mann, 2018, p. 149).

Placing the power to transform the geology and atmosphere of the entire planet in one planetary sovereign is an uncomfortable prospect. This power, of course, may not come about democratically, it may be assumed by the nation, or alliance of nations, that has achieved the greatest military might. The power of that sovereign would be such that they could make decisions over who is allowed to emit carbon, who is given the resources to adapt to a changing climate and so on.

Green Capitalism

According to Wainwright and Mann, this Climate Leviathan - a logical extension/endpoint of the UNFCCC process - would be ‘green capitalist’. It would be characterised by incentives for technological solutions and policy instruments that discourage fossil fuel exploitation. In other words, in terms of how government and economics currently work it would be a version of what currently exists, rather than a departure from it.

Wainwright and Mann’s argument that we are on the road to Climate Leviathan is strengthened by their analysis of what a ‘stronger’ version of the Paris Agreement would have looked like - a version that future UNFCCC agreements may more closely resemble. Wainwright and Mann contend that a more ‘successful’ Paris Agreement would have seen a drastic reigning in of the capitalist economic model, not an abandonment of it. At least that is how it would have been if anti Neoliberalism campaigners like Naomi Klein had been listened to.

Klein’s position, which is where she differs from Wainwright and Mann, is that it is the Neoliberal nature of capitalism, rather than capitalism itself that is the problem. Klein, along with many others in the environmental movement promote what only amounts to a greener form of capitalism.

Wainwright and Mann argue that ‘green’ capitalism is what we would end up with under a Climate Leviathan; it is the direction of travel under the UNFCCC process. This is the final difficulty with Climate Leviathan, as this historical perspective highlights:

There seems little reason to believe less neoliberal varieties of capitalism would have greened their economies in any meaningful way. The world has by no means been uniformly neoliberal since the discovery of climate change, but capitalist elites have acted basically the same way everywhere. While the neoliberal order continues to wreak havoc on communities human and non-human around the world, and has accelerated devastating processes unleashed by capitalism, climate change included, we cannot logically or historically hold neoliberalism responsible for the failure to face up to the reality of climate change … Capitalism did not need to be neoliberal to create the challenges we face.
(Wainwright and Mann, 2018, p. 169-170)

It is important to note here that Wainwright and Mann are for the large part very sympathetic to Naomi Klein and her work. They praise her 2015 book This Changes Everything[13] and the role she has played in the climate justice movement. Their critique of her and the many others promoting green capitalism is that although their advocacy can be justified, to an extent, on the grounds of pragmatism (as battle is done with the Climate Behemoth), ‘green capitalism’ as a ‘solution’ to climate change can really only ever be a fudge – a way to delay the inevitable across climate change and a host of other environmental and sustainability challenges.

The suggestion that the problem is or was neoliberalism, not capitalism, which is what so many of us want to believe even if we know it is not true, is potentially fatal because it consistently leads much of the climate justice movement away from a confrontation with capital, at both the level of political analysis and political practice. (Wainwright and Mann, 2018, p. 170)

The good train UNFCCC

The UNFCCC process is a heavy rumbling train, fuelled by ‘green’ and not-so-green capitalism. Against its name on every departure board are the destinations ‘Climate Leviathan’ and ‘Planetary Sovereignty’. It stops to pick up and drop off passengers at every COP taking on more fuel each time. Climate justice activists join its standard class carriages, protest about unfair treatment, but remain intellectually and physically partitioned off from the train’s drivers and first-class passengers. Those who are occasionally invited into the first-class dining car are accommodated under the tacit agreement that they will not rock the carriages, question the driver, or pull the emergency stop cord.

For many in the climate justice movement, this reality is not lost; anti-capitalist critiques of climate change exist and spread, it is a growing discourse. But, the UNFCCC process -  the train that goes from COP to COP - is still the overwhelmingly dominant vehicle for debate and discussion. Potential ‘solutions’ or responses to climate change that do not fit within the thinking and framing of the UNFCCC are unlikely to gain widespread attention; especially those that challenge ‘green capitalism’ or destination Planetary Sovereignty. Sadly, however, this unsatisfactory situation is only likely to persist.

As fervently as we might demand “system change, not climate change,” we have yet to really elaborate – let alone in a democratic or broad-based manner – what “system change” looks like beyond the [simple] absence of fossil fuels.
(Wainwright and Mann, 2018, p. 170)

While the UNFCCC train is headed to an unattractive Climate Leviathan destination, to jump off it is to leave oneself stranded on a cold and lonely platform with no alternative train to catch.

How should one respond? I’ve mentioned the desirability, yet high improbability, that a train bound for Wainwright and Mann’s ‘Climate X’ will turn up. This does not mean that we should abandon any hope or scale back efforts that might take us there. On the contrary, pursuit of the sort of local level sovereignty, direct democracy, consumption-light wellbeing and social justice a ‘Climate X’ political order suggests can give one’s life and career a vibrant sense of purpose. Even if it fails in climate change terms, it will likely emerge in pockets and improve life for many people across many measures, as the examples in ‘The Accidental Anarchist’ and an entire nation (Costa Rica) is starting to show.

However, the UNFCCC process thunders on, which it will whether we reach Climate Leviathan or not. We must therefore continue to engage with it, both to sustain the possibility that a better train can overtake it, but also to make the best of it as we endure a bumpy journey. Possible strategies include:

  1. Share analyses like Wainwright and Mann’s who tease out where the UNFCCC process and the prophets of green capitalism are taking us.

  2. Take critiques of Net Emissions Technologies seriously and amplify them to highlight the shortcomings of the Paris Agreement to wider audiences.

  3. Continue to promote Climate Change mitigation, but scrutinise it keenly and recognise its limitations.

  4. Maintain efforts to improve our capacity to change the behaviour of high GHG emitters.

  5. Find ways to work with existing Government structures and regulations, for example by using the purchasing power of state Government’s to accelerate expansion of renewable energy, something Christian Parenti calls the Big Green Buy.

  6. Research, formulate and consider alternative social and economic models like Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’, Jason Hickel’s ‘Degrowth’ and ecological anarchism.

  7. Be the change we want to see: make a point of taking low carbon options in general and in any engagements relating to the UNFCCC process.

Part two


[1] In the preamble to the Paris Agreement (see p.2) the UNFCCC itself was:

Emphasizing with serious concern the urgent need to address the significant gap between the aggregate effect of Parties’ mitigation pledges in terms of global annual emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020 and aggregate emission pathways consistent with holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above preindustrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above preindustrial levels.
(UNFCCC, 2015 ‘Adoption of the Paris Agreement’)

[2] Wainwright, J. and Mann, G (2018) Climate Leviathan: a political theory of our planetary future, Verso, UK. Available at:

[3] Another notable scientist is Peter Kalmus (listen) and numerous others are now emerging.

[4] A problem that has been identified for at least a decade, see for example:

[5] For an examination of the practicalities of a fully scaled application of BECCS see:

[6] Other than the need to plant an unfathomable number of trees – equivalent to covering an area at least as big as India in trees - a lesser recognised problem relates to the Earth’s ability to reflect sunlight (the albedo effect). One of the ways in which planet Earth regulates its temperature is by reflecting solar radiation straight back up from the Earth’s surface and back out into space. Being white, snow and ice are incredibly good at this. Trees, being green and much darker are, like the ocean, more likely to absorb solar radiation; therefore heating up the Earth’s surface. 

[7] Oxfam (2015) Extreme Carbon Inequality:

[8] Many other writers and academics also make this argument, for example Jason Hickel:

[9] The fifth and most recent climate change synthesis report of the IPCC, published in 2014, included a table listing key risks for the present, near term (2030-40) and long term (2080-2100). For each risk the IPCC provided a low, medium and high risk estimate over each time period and at two different degrees of warming (increases of 2 °C and 4 °C respectively). These tables can be found on pages 70 and 71 of the report, accessible at:

[10] Like Anderson, Wainwright and Mann are in little doubt that the probability of preventing at least 2°C of warming is almost zero. They outline why in the introductory chapters drawing on similar evidence to Anderson and other climate scientists. Applying the precautionary principle, what follows here and in their book is based on an assumption that at least 2 °C of warming is guaranteed.

[11] Duvall, R. and Havercroft, J. (2008) Taking Sovereignty out of this World: Space weapons and the Empire of the Future, Review of International Studies, 34, 755-75.

[12] Missile defence or weapons capable of striking targets on or near the earth’s surface

[13] Klein, N. (2015) This Changes Everything, Penguin, UK.