Deciphering the Grammar of Climate Change

In Climate Terror: A Critical Geopolitics of Climate Change, Sanjay Chaturvedi and Timothy Doyle caution us about the risks of fear-inducing climate change discourses.

Somewhat misplaced attention is placed on the security threats posed by climate change. Credit: Reuters

Somewhat misplaced attention is placed on the security threats posed by climate change. Credit: Reuters

When two scholars wearing critical geopolitics lenses turn their gaze on the issues related to climate change – genesis, structures, actors, processes, concepts and practices – what results is an insightful volume that demystifies much of how the subject is spoken about. Sanjay Chaturvedi and Timothy Doyle have accomplished this and much more in their new book, Climate Terror: A Critical Geopolitics of Climate Change. This timely book cautions us against the growing ‘securitization’ of this domain. It also cautions us about the attendant risks of alarmism and environmental doomsday scenarios.

Few social scientists have bothered to engage with the science of climate change closely, even if they have accepted the challenges that it brings to the sphere of social sciences. Chaturvedi and Doyle are an exception here and the effort also provides a good model for those interested in stimulating a conversation between the social and natural sciences. Another welcome facet is the collaboration of two scholars from the global North and the global South. Chaturvedi and Doyle make a good team and they bring excellent added value to the topic in question, coming as they do from their specific fields.

Sanjay Chaturvedi and Timothy Doyle Climate Terror: A Critical Geopolitics of Climate Change Palgrave Macmillan, 2015

Sanjay Chaturvedi and Timothy Doyle
Climate Terror: A Critical Geopolitics of Climate Change
Palgrave Macmillan, 2015

Climate futures and climate pasts

There are several key ideas worth mulling over from the book, but let us focus only on the most salient ones. The first is the idea of ‘climate futures’. A theme that constantly resurfaces in the book about the future is uncertainty. How do anxieties shape political outcomes in the climate domain? Chaturvedi and Doyle constantly remind us of the entanglement of power differentials in the definition and content of ‘climate futures’.

A binary that they hold on to steadfastly through the book is the North-South distinction. While it is pretty evident that neither the North nor the South qualify as simple monoliths, Chaturvedi and Doyle suggest that their perspectives on climate change are largely mediated through the histories of the countries where these perspective emerge from.

In other words, ‘climate futures’ cannot be disconnected from ‘climate pasts’ and larger environmental debts that the global North runs with the global South. Both the workings of capitalism and colonialism are of interest to Chaturvedi and Doyle and they make a distinction between ‘Earth-centric view of climate security’ advocated by the global South and an ‘atmospheric-centric view of climate security’ articulated often by the global North.

This distinction is an important one. The ‘Earth-centric view of climate security’ associated with the global South is very much anchored in the ‘lived in’ and uneven geographies of the Earth which have a bearing on questions of social justice and equity. The ‘atmospheric view of climate security’ associated with the global North, on the other hand, has to do much more with ‘imagined geographies’.

A climate of terror 

Another aspect that merits individual attention is the yoking of the term ‘terror’ with ‘climate’. This speaks to the heightened and somewhat misplaced attention placed on the security threats posed by climate change. While none can deny the impact natural disasters can potentially have on societies, economies and their polities, Chaturvedi and Doyle assert that it is rather restricted to overly ‘securitise’ this domain and pre-empt other more eclectic and broader narrative concepts.

Sanjay Chaturvedi. Credit: Twitter

Sanjay Chaturvedi. Credit: Twitter

Closely linked with this move to ‘securitise’ climate change concerns, the other equally troublesome conceptual innovation according to the authors is the concept of the ‘post-political’. The category effaces differences and posits a simple universality. It provides a clue in both Chaturvedi and Doyle’s assessment of how even terms like sustainable development when combined with the ‘post-political’ end up privileging the global North while simultaneously undermining livelihoods in the global South.

In many ways connected with the discussion on ‘climate futures’ are conceptions of ‘climate justice’. Chaturvedi and Doyle here raise a number of first order questions relating to reconciliation of notions of ‘environmental justice’ with notions of sovereignty. Are they overlapping or divergent notions of emancipation in the global North and the global South and where do those at the bottom of the heap feature in this conversation? There are also keen observations relating to the sites of protest both in the global North and the global South and the mutual interplay between geopolitics and geo-economics in determining the tenor and trajectory of resistance politics. Both China and India feature prominently in these discussions along with other individual case studies that make for insightful reading.

Timothy Doyle. Credit: Keene University website

Timothy Doyle. Credit: Keene University website

The book also raises important questions relating to how science is claimed as the single source of knowledge, and how – by limiting the conversation to scientists and experts – the conversation on climate change is closed off to many important stakeholders – not least those most affected by the impact of climate change. They argue that the conversation should be more participatory and inclusive. The book is an invitation for more “…critical geopolitical perspectives on and from the global South…” It sets out a well-thought out research agenda for those inclined to pursue some of the many questions raised.

Post-Trump era

What do we make of the book with the advantage of hindsight? In these post-Trump times, the pendulum appears to have shifted to the other end of the continuum – from heightened alarmism to active indifference to the significance of the global collective action problem at hand. Perhaps, the answer lies in some intermediate space where states and individuals come to terms with the reality of climate change while also being wary of the way that asymmetries of power between the global North and the global South play out in this sphere.

Stylistically, the book could have done with fewer quotes. Although, it is meant for an academic readership, the rewards are promising for anybody outside the relevant academic specialisations to also invest in reading it. A quibble I have with the book relates to its pricing. On Amazon the hardback edition costs Rs 7,299 while the Kindle edition is somewhat more accessible at Rs 1,370. Institutional libraries must come to the rescue here.

Siddharth Mallavarapu currently teaches International Relations at South Asian University, New Delhi, while on deputation from Jawaharlal Nehru University.