Academic journal article Development and Society

How Climate Change Might Save the World*

Academic journal article Development and Society

How Climate Change Might Save the World*

Article excerpt

We are faced with questions too big to fail and too big to answer. Most discussions on climate change are blocked; they are caught by catastrophism circulating in the horizon of the problem: what is climate change bad for? From a sociological point of view, because climate change is a threat to humanity, we can and should turn the question upside down and ask: what is climate change good for? The amazing thing is that if you firmly believe climate change is a fundamental threat to all of humanity, then that belief might bring a transformative, cosmopolitan turn in our contemporary life and the world might be changed for the better. This is what I call emancipatory catastrophism'. The question then is: how might climate change save the world?

First thesis: Climate change is the embodiment of the mistakes of a whole epoch of industrial capitalism, and climate risks pursue their acknowledgement and correction with all the violence of the possibility of annihilation.

Global risks are a kind of collective return of the repressed, wherein the self-assurance of the industrial capitalism, organized in form of nation-state politics, is confronted with the source of its own errors as an objectified threat to its own existence. Thus the global risk of climate change is a kind of compulsive, collective memory of the fact that past decisions and mistakes are contained in what we find ourselves exposed to; and that even the highest degree of institutional reification is nothing but a reification that can be revoked - a borrowed mode of action which can, and must, be changed if it leads to self-jeopardization.

Put differently, the sociological significance of climate change lies in the momentum it generates in the re-emergence of the historicity of society and politics on a global scale, thereby allowing us to imagine new beginnings. Therefore, climate change risk can, as we shall see, be made into cosmopolitan communities of shared risks or even into an antidote to war; it induces the necessity to overcome neo-liberalism and to perceive and to practice new forms of transnational responsibility. It empowers the poor countries of the world and gives them a public voice; it puts the problem of cosmopolitan justice on the agenda of international politics; it creates informal and formal cooperation patterns between countries and governments who otherwise ignore each other or even see themselves as enemies. It makes economic and public actors accountable and makes responsible those who do not want to be accountable and responsible, and this happens even when they have the law on their side. It opens up new world markets, new innovation patterns; it changes lifestyles and consumption patterns. Last but not least, it induces new understandings of and caring for nature. All of this happens under the surface of the mantra of disappointments and disillusionments at the Wanderzirkus (traveling circus) of one climate conference after the other. From this perspective, climate change means first of all the end of the end of politics with highly ambivalent implications: global risk imposes a historical necessity for a cosmopolitan turn in politics but at the same time - and exactly because of this - it empowers anti-cosmopolitan movements.

In the present moment, however, this re-emergence of politics remains clouded by the dominance of apocalyptic imaginaries in public discourse. It is limited by the inability of sociological thinking to analyse the transformation of the political and imagine new openings. To combat the sources of climate pessimism, we need a new cosmopolitan outlook, in research and politics, capable of grasping the epochal transformations of economy, culture, society and politics set in motion by the global risk of climate change.

Second thesis: Sociologically and politically, the key is to distinguish risk from catastrophe. Risk is not catastrophe, but rather, the anticipation of future catastrophe in the present, as a horizon of the present future. …

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