Guest essay by Eric Worrall
How Governments React to Climate Change: An Interview with the Political Theorists Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann
By Isaac Chotiner
January 14, 2019
In “Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future,” Joel Wainwright, a professor of geography at Ohio State University, and Geoff Mann, the director of the Center for Global Political Economy at Simon Fraser University, consider how to approach a problem of such international dimensions. They look at several different political futures for our warming planet, and argue that a more forceful international order, or “Climate Leviathan,” is emerging, but unlikely to mitigate catastrophic warming.
Wainright: One of the arguments in our book is that, under pressure from the looming challenges of climate change, we can expect changes in the organization of political sovereignty. It’s going to be the first major change that humans have lived through in a while, since the emergence of what we sometimes think of as the modern period of sovereignty, as theorized by Thomas Hobbes, among others. We should expect that after, more than likely, a period of extended conflict and real problems for the existing global order, we’ll see the emergence of something that we describe as planetary sovereignty.
So, in that scenario, we could look at the current period with the crisis of liberal democracies all around the planet and the emergence of figures like Bolsonaro and Trump and [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi as symptoms of a more general crisis, which is simultaneously ecological, political, and economic. Maybe this is quibbling with your question, of trying to disaggregate the causal variable. Which comes first—is it the ecological or the political and economic?—is a little bit difficult because it’s all entangled.
Mann: I think we’re going to witness and are already witnessing, in its emergent form, lots of changes to what we think of as the sovereign nation-state. Some of that change right now is super-reactionary—some groups are trying to make it stronger and more impervious than it’s been in a long time. Then, other kinds of forces are driving it to disintegrate, both in ways we might think of as pretty negative, like some of the things that are happening in the E.U., but also in other ways that we might think of as positive, in the sense of international coöperation. There’s some discussion about what to do about climate migration, at least.
There is a terrific book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which examines amongst other things why comparatively united great powers like China stagnated for millennia, while quarrelsome, disunited Europe went on to create the modern world.
… At the beginning of the sixteenth century it was by no means apparent that the last-named region [Europe] was destined to rise above all the rest. But however imposing and organised some of those oriental empires appeared by comparison with Europe, they all suffered from the consequences of having a centralised authority which insisted upon uniformity of belief and practice, not only in official state religion but also in such areas as commercial activities and weapons development. The lack of any such supreme authority in Europe and the warlike rivalries among its various kingdoms and city-states stimulated a constant search for military improvements, which interacted fruitfully with newer technological and commercial advances that were also being thrown up in this competitive, entrepreneurial environment. Possessing fewer obstacles to change, European societies entered into a constant upward spiral of economic growth and enhanced military effectiveness which, over time, was to carry them ahead of all other regions of the globe …
History suggests that nations and cultures which retain their individuality and liberty in the face of brutal transnational political pressure to conform will be the nations and cultures which shape the future.