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Models of climate chaos

The creed of neoliberalism redefines labour, land and the climate. It’s politically dominant and reinforces capitalism’s demand that Earth’s climate be construed as part of nature as an external object — a computer-modelled system. The neoliberal state builds upon this concept and engineers it into rentable, marketable units, transforming the meaning of “climate” and its relationship to capital.

The neoliberalist “climate” sees humans as transcending nature and nature as belonging to us. The concrete ways in which it has externalised the climate have provided materials for innovations such as climate rent and climate commodities. By regarding our climate as a chaotic but ultimately modellable form (technically termed as “global coupled models,” or GCMs), pollution has been made abstract, with compensations and equivalences put in service to override local barriers to extraction, production and circulation.

What created the neoliberal climate?

Modelling experts have updated older nature/society, fact/value, science/policy dichotomies into a single system/context dualism linked to capitalist production management. Shaped by the rise of computing, climatology went through a revolution. GCMs produced a climate system as well as an external context, or social system, into which everything — political decisions, individual preferences, class struggle, ideologies — was placed. But the new system/context dichotomy, like the older nature/science one, is plagued with contradictions.

A working example is from the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was formed in 1988 in order to make regular assessments on climate change. These studies include the scientific basis for climate change, its impacts and future risks and aim to articulate potential adaptation and mitigation to policy makers. In effect the IPCC endorses a conception of science-based policy. Its fifth report (IPCCAR5) is its most contemporary to date.

Working group One

The role of the IPCC’s Working Group One is to assess on a “comprehensive, objective and transparent basis — the scientific, technical and socio-economic information for the risk of human induced climate change, its impacts and options for adaptation and mitigation.”

This quote highlights an objectivity requirement, both in the assessment of scientific information as well as in the information itself. It suggests that objectivity in assessment of the science in climate modelling can help us to understand the biases involved when looking at the risk of human-induced climate change and its impact on adaptation/mitigation strategies. In short the objective assessment of the science should be able to influence policy decision making and the desiratum is that science and its assessment in Working Group One are both apt and objective policies.

The group guidance note further advises that even with mathematical methods to determine uncertainties, its statements still require the use of expert judgment. So the physically-based sciences need a subjective process (expert judgment) to provide a comprehensive uncertainty statement to, for example, assess the range of projected global mean temperature increases for a particular emissions scenario.

The challenge here is to arrive at an uncertainty range from a synthesis of the available information. Expert judgment is part of the end of the synthesis of an uncertainty range. It is important to realise that though expert judgment is a subjective process, in the eyes of the IPCC it is the that judgement which provides an increase in objectivity via their “expertise.”

One can therefore consider the need of objective science to be upheld by expert judgment on the standard model as prescribed by the IPCC. However there is no formal available procedure specified in the guidance note. As a consequence the subjectivity in the process may override any increase in objectivity.

Frigg et al show that the subjectivity in climate modelling does not only happen in the uncertainty estimate, but that expert judgment is used throughout. This in turn shows that the whole of the science involved in climate modelling can be seen as subjective and not objective.

Treating the planet as a system amenable to management has still presented nature as a-historical, something predictable and controllable. The systems approach represented a new way to help neoliberals address all social issues through price discovery. This is how the neoliberal “climate” became integrated with the economy.


These political mechanics cannot be anything but trouble. As we have seen the science/policy process models for optimising climate change, so-called truth machines, culminate in contradiction.

Thus the economist’s view of climate comes into conflict with that of climatologists. However the onset of chaotic outcomes (New Orleans, Puerto Rico) paved the way for new waves of disaster capitalism: creative destruction.

Environmental policy in the neoliberal era sees the value of nature as dependent on applications of economic/ecological expertise to an external non-human entity, rather than as the historical interactions of commoners and commons.

What is wrong?

From an ecological Marxist, indigenous or feminist perspective, neoliberal natures look more like an elaboration of their industrial forbears rather than an alternative. Practices of treating the climate not as a neutral backdrop to human activities but as an integral part of many moral/political orders tend to be ignored.

Furthermore political action, now relegated to a rudimentary interface between the two structures and mainstream climate politics, becomes a matter of border controls between nature and society and not about questioning them. New rents, commodities and markets which help define the neoliberal climate are constructed and maintained overwhelmingly through the expanded activities of the State and international agencies. In keeping with neoliberal tenets, the new climate is built in ways that help State and corporate actors evade much of the burden of social problems that markets are now advertised as cheaply solving.

What can be done?

The very understanding of neoliberal climate requires a point of resistance. To understand is to resist neoliberalism and its forerunner capitalisms. As Larry Lohmann puts it in Neoliberalism’s Climate: “Putting in perspective the neoliberal claim that it can provide alternative, cheaper ways of preserving and stabilising a singular timeless non-human climate “needed by humanity entails listening to indigenous, peasant, labour, feminist and commons movements with the experience to perceive the classicism, racism and neo-colonialism inherent in such construals of nature.”

Uzma Malik

This article first appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Freedom Anarchist Journal

Pic: Ted McGrath

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