Is climate change a crisis, an emergency or a catastrophe? Is climate action a rebellion, sabotage or a war? How you characterise threats influences how you respond to them. The two lexicons follow similar gradients of imperative urgency.
Lurking behind the Covid emergency lies the far greater risk of an extinction comparable to that which wiped out 80 per cent of the Earth’s species 66 million years ago.
According to the paleo-scientist Andrew Glickson, annual carbon dioxide emissions are now increasing at a faster rate than after the asteroid impact which eradicated the dinosaurs. He fears we are approaching planetary tipping points, triggering devastating impacts such as major ice melts and disrupted winds and ocean currents.
While it is possible for capital to decarbonise, Malm repeatedly argues profitability prevents that happening, showing how fossil companies continue to expand
Mitigating these effects will require “decarbonisation of the global economy, enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks, behavioural changes, technological innovations, new governance arrangements and transformed social values”.
We will hear a lot more about such risks and how to mitigate them when the second and third reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are released in February and March. The first report on physical changes was published before last month’s Cop26 summit in Glasgow.
It said plainly that human activities are causing climate change. It highlighted attribution science, which quantifies the influence of carbon release on those physical changes, making it easier for media to report on climate events and citizens to understand them.
Leaked versions of the forthcoming reports indicate they will support comprehensive mitigation policies, and reference radical authors such as Jason Hickel and Andreas Malm.
Hickel advocates degrowth instead of endless capital accumulation and calls for major structural changes to ensure a fair deal for the global south. Capitalism is incapable of decarbonising the global economy, recent economic trends show, he says.
Malm agrees and brings formidable credentials as a theorist, analyst and activist to the argument. A Swedish economic historian and geographer, he is the author of Fossil Capital, a brilliant Marxist study of how steam power, fired by coal, displaced water as the driving force of the industrial revolution in Britain. Its primacy was based on its greater profitability and controllability .
Those logics still drive fossil capital today, in and through China especially, he says. While it is possible for capital to decarbonise, Malm repeatedly argues profitability prevents that happening, showing how fossil companies continue to expand and invest with state support.
That puts a green new deal based on a social democratic perspective of gradual reform in deepest question.
Malm reminds his readers that rebellious movements against slavery, patriarchy, colonialism and apartheid resorted to force because they had to
It places Malm between emergency and catastrophe on the lexicon of threats posed by global warming. His response is equally radical and is seen in the deliberately provocative title of his latest book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline.
It makes the case for sabotage against fossil plants and infrastructure given the imminent danger of climate breakdown. It is a sustained polemic against the dogmatic pacifism of Extinction Rebellion, the direct action climate movement which took off internationally from 2018 but has since been halted by the Covid emergency.
Malm does not quarrel with the strategic common sense of non-violence, given the need to win popular support and avoid unscrupulous media and political stereotyping. But he distinguishes sharply between interpersonal violence, which he opposes, and targeted sabotage of fossil property, superyachts, private planes, SUVs and other paraphernalia of the world’s richest one per cent, responsible for most warming.
He reminds his readers that rebellious movements against slavery, patriarchy, colonialism and apartheid resorted to force because they had to, often after exhausting peaceful means. Concessions and victories were won by making these difficult decisions. Above all, previous movements had time on their side, unlike the present younger generation confronted with imminent climate catastrophe.
In another book, White Skin, Black Fuel, written with a left-wing collective, Malm analyses the danger of fossil fascism based on far-right climate denialism in Europe, North America and Brazil.
Whiteness and racism were closely associated with the imperialism of steam power and have been resurrected in contemporary anti-Muslim movements, which also glorify fossil fuels and oppose vaccines. Malm links the climate and Covid threats with worldwide deforestation, driven by big capital and making zoonotic disease transfers much more likely.
These claims are made by Malm in another polemical text, Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency. Its subtitle, War Communism in the Twenty-First Century, clearly reveals his Leninist politics. Reviewing it the economic historian Adam Tooze asked pertinently: “What are the social democratic politics of emergency?”