Climate Crisis Politics

A Conversation with Timothy Mitchell, Andreas Folkers, and Lynne Huffer

During the 2022–23 academic year, the School of Social Science hosted a special theme seminar on Climate Crisis Politics, meant to investigate how the challenges of climate crisis and its surrounding politics generate novel questions. Members Lynne Huffer and Andreas Folkers, and Distinguished Visiting Professor Timothy Mitchell—co-leader of the special theme year—spoke with us about the important and varied work of the seminar Members, the meaning of the term ‘climate crisis politics,’ and on what it looks like to live in and beyond climate crisis.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The words climate, crisis, and politics can combine in a variety of ways, and those conjunctions have a very broad reach in meaning. Which conjunction do you find most important or relevant to your own work?

TM: It’s the three words together. And it’s precisely bringing them together that’s important —for my work, and probably for the group as a whole. We’re not trying to study the climate crisis from the point of view of climate science. We’re not trying to solve the crisis—I think it’s probably too late for that. But we are trying to think about the kinds of conceptions and the kinds of vocabulary that will help us mitigate it, live with it, live with one another, and live on the planet differently.

AF: I have some minor reservations against the ‘crisis’ element. The notion with which we speak about climate crisis—and, I think, the idea behind giving the seminar this title—was a decision by a couple of journalists and influential climate scientists to show the urgency of the issue. I still think it is a good choice to feature ‘crisis’ in the seminar title—for that reason. But the traditional notion of crisis is that certain types of events escalate to a certain point and then resolve, or not, whereas the climate crisis is characterized by the fact that even if we achieve limiting global warming to five degrees Celsius, it would still be a long secular change of both nature and society. To think about climate change as a chronic crisis with a long adaption period is something new for the social sciences.

LH: And I would add that another reserva­tion some people have about the word ‘crisis’ is that it suggests that the effects of the changes in the climate are new. And, for many people (some of whom are marginalized and not seen by mainstream media), they are not new. The word ‘crisis’ suggests newness, and it makes one ask the question: “crisis for whom?” For my own work, where I think about extinction and the question of ethics in relation to extinction, I would also want to add two things: first, a capacious under­standing of climate that includes the problem of mass species extinction; second, to connect the question of politics with ethical questions about “how we are to live” in a very everyday sense. Sometimes I think people perceive politics as being on the level of government or international meetings, but, as some­one trained in feminist theory, I think one of the things feminism has brought to the understanding of politics is the way it permeates every aspect of our lives and how it has to do with questions of power. I think it’s useful to think about politics’ relation to climate in this way.

Have you found surprising intersections between climate crisis politics and other disciplines or subdisciplines?

LH: I’m a philosopher, so I’ve done theory and I’m trained in literary studies. One of the things that has been surprising in my own work, taking on the problem of mass species extinction, is that I’ve become something of an expert in the history of paleontology. And that’s definitely unexpected!

AF: I don’t think I can name a single area because, as social scientists, I think we have to be prepared to be surprised by the effects of the climate emergency. Sociology formed around social questions in the late nineteenth century with the emergence of industrial­ization and capitalism, problems of poverty, public health, and others. As a sociologist, I think what the climate crisis is doing is changing the way we have traditionally thought of societies and the fundamental concepts we are employing. Therefore, it’s really important to expect surprises.

TM: Several of us in the group are influenced by the field of science and technology studies (STS). And what I think that reflects, as Andreas was just saying, is that older forms of social science often worked with a very well-defined conception of what the object of that science was: society, economy, government, and the political system. Lynne just mentioned the way in which feminist theories sort of exploded and expanded those forms. I think that’s an example—and there are others—of the ways in which none of us are working within the limits of one of the conventional disciplines of social science. And I think, with climate politics, that’s absolutely essential. Climate politics challenges the very conception that there’s some sort of bounded thing called the social world, or society, that you can study—or that you ought to study—separately from questions of ecology or questions of energy and its use. Again and again, you’re moving outside of what might have been historically the more conventional focus on certain kinds of social actors or political actors.

LH: What Tim is saying is interesting because how we think about nature is completely different. In traditional social contract theory, you come into society by making a contract that brings you out of the state of nature. But current scholarship is very much about how human relations are inextricably tied to this thing that we call nature—the natural world. It’s no longer “Man versus Nature.” It’s natureculture, all as one thing.

Alex Seidel

Which other fundamental theories are challenged by climate crisis politics?

AF: You can say, at the most fundamental level, we’re talking about questions of social ontology. What is an actor? What is a social entity? What is the object we are studying? What is social action? Who has agency? Who doesn’t have agency? There are a lot of debates that have asked these questions through, roughly, the millennium. Then there are the political questions—the general diagnosis of what kind of society we’re in. One of the concepts that I am struggling with is the concept of modernity, and this is the question of my book project. How do we have to rethink moder­nity, which is always presented to us as ‘the new,’ if it only became possible by going to the old—fossils—to fuel this sense of newness, of movement, of dynamic? And how is modernity undermined by the fact that we are now stuck with the fossil residuals of the past: the CO2 in the atmosphere, the plastic waste in the ocean, and the chemical pollution all over? What does it mean to be modern?

TM: One of the things I’m thinking about is connected with that; it’s how we conceptualize and live in relation to the future. One way of thinking about the problem of climate politics would seem to be our inability to act in relation to the future, that we suffer from some kind of presentism. Part of my interest is that we actually have a variety of ways of relating to the future, but those ways are inadequate because they are very specific to specific kinds of ends. I am particularly interested in that from the aspect of finance, and the particular ways of not just calculating the value of the future but of extracting that future value in the present. Living off the future in the present has come to define both the nature of capitalism and the way capitalism works. So, reframing what capitalism is and capitalism’s relation to modernity has been at the center of some of the work I have been doing this year.

LH: My primary field is philosophy, so one of the things I have been thinking about for many years is ethics. Traditionally, ethics begins with a moral subject—a human subject. And I think one of the things that climate crisis politics forces us to do is de-center the human subject as a moral agent. And that’s super tricky; what kind of ethics is that? But I think it’s necessary. There’s a tradition in philosophy of anti-humanism that goes back at least until the middle of the twentieth century, but I think that climate crisis and extinction reframe it in really interesting ways.

How has climate crisis politics challenged traditional methodologies?

LH: My methodologies are influenced by philosophers of various kinds, but one method I take really seriously is the genealogical method, specifically in the sense defined by [Michel] Foucault, which has to do with looking at discontinuities and not being able to deter­mine causes. Assumptions we make about causality are put into question. I think that ties in really well with how I’m looking at the fossil record, because the fossil record is radically incomplete. It’s mostly blanks. One writer describes it as speech marks without quotations—which I love. And so, one thing I’m doing methodologically, again as somebody in the humanities, is I’m experimenting with the form of my work by trying to replicate that fragmentation of our knowing and that fragmentation of the archive. My project is written as a rearrangement of fragments. It’s not just chaos—it still tells us stuff—but it’s also really paying attention to the gaps and silences and to the places where we just cannot know. My method is trying to open up a space for think­ing differently about how we can know and what we can know, as well as change our ethical attitude to one that makes us more right-sized in relation to the universe.

AF: Picking up on what Lynne said, I think what is clear is when we say we can no longer separate nature and society, this brings a huge challenge not only to the social sciences but also to the natural sciences. I recently re-read an old text by Wilhelm Windelband, and he makes a distinction not between natural scientists and social scientists but a distinction between two separate approaches: one is historical, an event science that reconstructs history, and the other is a law science where you try to explain certain processes through the fundamental laws that govern it. What I think is interesting is that this distinction no longer maps on to the ‘social sciences versus natural sciences’ distinction because in both instances we have these moments—in no longer separating nature and society, but viewing it as natureculture—where we have to think about historical processes as eventful. I’m always thinking about this idea of natural history, and I think it’s a problem that we all have to grapple with.

TM: For the reasons we’ve been talking about, with the inadequacies of the conventional disciplines and divisions of the social sciences for dealing with what we’re up against, inevitably new methods are necessary. Instead of singling out one, I believe it’s more about a kind of openness, similar to what Andreas already mentioned. As opposed to a more conventional approach which sort of assumes it knows who the actors are—certain classes or social groups, political organizations, or states (depending on what level the actors are taken to be)—and then examines the interactions between them, I think starting with an openness and a curiosity about the very question of agency and the possibilities of action is necessary, and is itself a methodological principle.

Alex Seidel

When thinking about climate crisis politics, what other important considerations should we keep in mind?

LH: As somebody who works on extinction, I think that some people aren’t aware of the extent of the problem of extinction. It’s somewhat invisible. Sometimes, ironi­cally, it’s made invisible by the prominence of climate crisis and all the media attention that’s given to that. People think of extinction as just about these animals: we don’t notice if they’re there or not. But really it has to do with the stability of the earth system, the integrity of the biosphere. It forms the foundations of everything that we do, the bonds that hold everything together. And when we’re in a mass-species-extinction event as  we are now—people estimate we’re losing 137 species of plants and animals per day—nobody knows what the effect of that is going to be. Further, the politics of this is really complicated. One of the main drivers of extinction is habitat loss, and proposals to remediate that are focused on returning land to the wild. But that land being protected in the name of preservation is often land that is occupied by indigenous people. They’re not the main drivers of deforestation, and yet they’re the ones who end up targeted by punitive policies put forward in the name of remediating the problem of habitat loss.

AF: Picking up on that because I think it’s a very import­ant point, what we should emphasize is that people in this year’s seminar are doing a lot of substantial work on the current topics and problems. What has traditionally been understood as climate politics, at the great international summits, is, at this stage, mostly settled. What is import­ant now is to determine how the climate goals translate into different social fields. It’s great to be in such an inter­disciplinary group with people studying climate crisis politics effects on law, economy, finance, urban planning, international relations, and areas of justice like environ­mental justice, climate justice, and global justice. The other thing, which Lynne also indicated, is that official climate politics often has a negative impact on a series of other fields, like biodiversity and indigenous groups. The dominance of economic tools on climate politics don’t address the global inequalities between polluting countries and the countries to whom most of the climate effects are happening. It is very important for us to critically engage with the proposals already made and examine how they are aggravating existing inequalities—and determine how we can think about these things differently.

TM: I think alongside that question of justice, and as a part of this question of politics, there is a concern with the fact that some people are going to benefit, at least within the short to medium term, from forms of climate catastrophe. There will be money to be made; there will be forms of great impoverishment that will benefit others. And so, the question of justice and injustice isn’t just about how you reach out and help other people. It’s realizing that, particularly in the more privileged kinds of places in which we live, there will be beneficiaries. One of the extraordinary political challenges will be arguments about limits to freedom. Thinking not only about the ways this is already the case, but also what we’re up against in the future, about how a crisis can be mobilized, as it often has been in history, as an argument against freedom—against various forms of very fragile political rights—is an important aspect which some of the seminar members are working on.

Lynne Huffer is Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Philosophy at Emory University. Her most recent work is a trilogy on Foucault’s ethics of eros: Foucault’s Strange Eros (2020); Are the Lips a Grave?: A Queer Feminist on the Ethics of Sex (2013); and Mad for Foucault: Rethinking the Foundations of Queer Theory (2010). She is also the author, with Jennifer Yorke, of Wading Pool, a collaborative artists book. She is a Member of the School of Social Science, where she is completing an experimental book project, “The Ethics of Extinction: 99 Anthropocene Fragments.”

Andreas Folkers is a postdoc in sociology. His work investigates the bio- and technopolitics of contemporary societies from a perspective that combines the analytical sensibilities of STS with approaches in (critical) social theory. He has published a mono­graph on his Ph.D. work on disaster preparedness, and numer­ous articles in journals such as Theory, Culture & Society, EPD: Society and Space, Economy and Society, European Journal of Social Theory, Security Dialogue, and Social Studies of Science. As a Member of the School of Social Science, he is writing a book tentatively titled "Fossil Modernity: A Natural History of the Present" on the rise, fall, and after­lives of the cataclysmic ligature between modern societies and fossil fuels.

Timothy Mitchell is the William B. Ransford Professor of Middle Eastern Studies in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. His areas of research include the place of colonialism in the making of modernity, the material and technical politics of the Middle East, and the role of economics and other forms of expert knowledge in the government of collective life. His books include Colonising Egypt; Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity; and Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. During the 2022–23 academic year, he is a Distinguished Visiting Professor in the School of Social Science.