The biggest Atlantic storm on record, shutting down the northeast USA on the eve of a presidential election, offers a good occasion to revisit the original theme of this blog. Before the financial crisis of 2008, if this had happened, the headlines would be screaming about this event as a taste of the future, and everyone would be asking what to do. But the global recession destroyed the new climate politics that had developed after Al Gore’s film, and the whole issue has returned to the realm of invisible ineffectual diplomacy inhabited by other lost causes, like global nuclear disarmament.
The American Right of the 1990s led the opposition to the first attempt to make a global system of emissions reduction – the Kyoto protocol – and as a result they have ensured that the long-term geopolitics of climate will simply be about geoengineering, rather than about finetuning a global system of carbon credits.
Perhaps such a system would have collapsed for some other reason, such as the rise of the BRICs, but let’s attribute cause and effect correctly: it was the resistance from the Right, within the American political system, to globalist regulation and liberal statism, which prevented an effective American-led climate protocol from ever coming into existence. The recession of the late 2000s simply delivered the death blow to an already ineffective system.
So the future is going to be about sulfate aerosols and nanotechnological carbon capture. Sure, there will be countries with carbon taxes and emissions trading schemes, and alternative sources of energy like renewables and nuclear power will continue to get plenty of attention. Weather catastrophes will of course keep happening and keep getting bigger, and who should pay for damage past, present, and future will be an increasingly acrimonious issue in international relations.
But the attempt to regulate the overall human impact on planetary climate through political economy has failed. It may take a few more years for that to sink in, but when it does, that will be the day that geoengineering openly becomes the central issue of climate politics, because it will be the only alternative to “adaptation” left. The politics of geoengineering will look new, because it is about centralized high-impact adjustments of climate that can be carried out by any entrepreneurial technological power, and it may be part of a general politics of advanced technology that the human race will have to develop, in order to deal with other issues.
That is my intuitive diagnosis and prognosis of the situation. I welcome comment, correction, and improvement, in order to bring it closer to reality.