Climate Change as Political Catastrophe: Before Collapse
(forthcoming with Oxford University Press in February 2024)
In a 2018 special report, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—the world’s leading climate-research body—warned of “catastrophic” outcomes unless states were to undertake “unprecedented” action “across all sectors of society” before 2030. In the years since, dozens of national governments and hundreds of municipalities have declared a “climate emergency.” Not surprisingly then, scholars in many disciplines—from environmental science to economics and beyond—have begun to give more central place to the potential for climate catastrophe in their research. My book manuscript, Climate Change as Political Catastrophe: Before Collapse, extends this interdisciplinary conversation to political theory, investigating what exactly counts as a “climate catastrophe” and what catastrophic climate change portends for prevailing moral-political values, practices, and institutions.
Much of the existing literature on catastrophe responds to these questions by reference to thresholds of damage, risk, or human casualties. In contrast, I develop an account that is informed by empirical studies of collapse and theoretically anchored to the Rawlsian-Humean notion of the “circumstances of justice.” I argue that climate change is politically catastrophic to the extent it threatens material scarcity so extreme that many will be unable to meet their basic needs without denying others the ability to do the same. Under such zero-sum conditions, realizing or sustaining fair and uncoerced forms of social cooperation becomes impossible, and thus too (stable) democratic governance. I then use the lens of catastrophe to bring into focus questions about how to navigate trade-offs between fairness and efficacious action, the justified use of authoritarian climate emergency powers, and the nature and aim of climate disobedience—all of which I explore in separate chapters.
Apart perhaps from the specter of nuclear annihilation, human civilization has never had to reckon with a threat so comprehensive and final as that of climate catastrophe. Much as Michael Walzer once argued that “supreme necessity” alters the contours of what is permissible in war, this book starts from the premise that the possibility of politically catastrophic climate change upends many of the most basic and widely shared assumptions in liberal and democratic thought, including those concerning justice, legitimacy, emergency power, and disobedience.
Photo on cover by Angela Mittiga