Climate change has been a political issue in America for almost my entire life—James Hansen first testified to the reality of global warming before the Senate in 1988—but the prospects for the planet keep getting worse. At first, climate change was discussed as a distant problem, something to fix for future generations. Then it was discussed as geographically remote, something that was happening in some other part of the world. Now it’s recognized as something that’s happening today to people living in the United States—and yet what are we doing about it? Usually, it seems, very little. Kim Stanley Robinson has dubbed this period of doing-nothing-much the Dithering; Amitav Ghosh suggests calling it the Great Derangement. Something has gone terribly wrong: A problem that is widely recognized as threatening millions of lives, perhaps even the future of human life on Earth, has not been addressed seriously and doesn’t seem likely to be.
For a while, democracy was deemed to be the culprit: Democratic politics, some argued, simply isn’t suited to addressing problems that lie in the future or extend beyond national boundaries. Climate change is just too complicated for most people to understand; better to leave it to the experts. It’s too hard a subject to broach during a political campaign; no one really wants to think about something so depressing, and what politician in his or her right mind would call for lowering living standards in order to decrease carbon emissions?
Now that capitalism is again on the table as a political issue, it also gets its share of blame. The political problem, it’s now said, isn’t democracy alone, but rather that democracy is held hostage by oil money and the politicians purchased by it. Even some capitalists are starting to acknowledge that the system could use some tweaks. (Others, like Elon Musk, are planning to decamp to Mars: the Great Derangement indeed.) Swapping corporations for democracy as the root of the problem is a welcome development. Yet serious political thinking about climate change remains in short supply. Most people are now worried about it, but few are putting climate change at the heart of their political thought and practice.
In this context, Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright’s new work of political theory, Climate Leviathan, is a welcome addition to the small but growing body of climate writing on the left. It’s a book explicitly aimed at understanding the political dimensions of climate change instead of relegating them to a paragraph or two in the concluding section. It also takes a different tack than most works on climate politics. The authors are not interested in why we aren’t acting to curb carbon emissions; instead, they’re interested in the kinds of political scenarios that are likely to emerge in response to the approaching ecological crises.
Climate change will be so central to human life and global politics in the coming years, Mann and Wainwright argue, that the response to it will shape the entire future world order, not merely the statements that issue out of the United Nations at the end of every year. If the left is to play a part in shaping this new world, they continue, it needs to think seriously about the “political tools, strategies, and tactics” at its disposal. Climate change, though a novel and previously unimaginable problem, does not actually require a radical departure from traditional left struggles for freedom, equality, and justice; it simply poses new versions of familiar dilemmas. Our political thought doesn’t need to address climate change directly to offer insights into the role that the left can play in responding to it, but we will need to develop old ideas in new directions if we are to navigate a world that is now changing radically.