Alisa Singer, Global Carbon Emissions by Source

The Politics of Climate Change

This is an online course (Eastern Time)

The last six years have been the hottest in recorded human history. From atmospheric carbon concentration and ocean acidification to increased frequency of extreme weather events and, yes, pandemics, it is not only that every measure of climate change has become more pronounced but that the intensity of this already existing socioecological phenomenon is ever more palpable to the vast majority of people across the world.  Climate has moved from a so-called “special interest” to an everyday concern—with the mainstream, cautious IPCC calling for nothing less than unprecedented, radical socio-economic transformation. However, across the political spectrum, climate change is often still treated as an addendum to existing political programs, assumed as a point where divergent interests universally converge, or addressed as a principally technical question. Debates rage about specific climate mitigation and adaptation policies,  epistemologies, ethics, and visions. But a specific climate politics—especially as a contest of powers over fundamentally irreconcilable programs and desires—is shockingly elusive. How does the knowledge provided by climate science radically alter the material basis for politics in the 21st century? How can we build a politics and a political theory of climate change? How might such a theory work with, alter, or challenge existing political projects?

In this course, students will review natural and social scientific analyses of climate change and ecology alongside policy proposals and works of political theory and history. Just as we examine the failures of existing liberal policy, we will ask about limitations to some of the strategies and proposals advocated by socialists, eco-Marxists, and other radical approaches. Even if capitalism is accepted as causally central, does this necessarily mean that socialism or communism provide easy and obvious remedies? How should we understand the debates around growth and development, “degrowth” and “green growth,” particularly alongside long-term trends towards a post-growth world and a global majority of surplus populations?  What is lost or missed in these debates? What are the attractions and limitations of techno-utopian programs—whether expressed by Jeff Bezos or by self-described “socialists”? How can we understand the changing landscape of desires in this increasingly intense, extractive ecological niche? When are “equity” issues from race and decolonization to gender and social reproduction unavoidable in even technical terms? What kind of politics are already expressed in mass political ecological movements in the Global South? And what do these mean for an emancipatory climate politics in the North? What are the new political possibilities that the current catastrophic conditions enable? Adapting Walter Benjamin’s proposition that revolutions are not “the locomotive of world history,” we will ask in the face of an overheating and exhausting reality, what it means, and if it is still possible for “the passengers on this train—namely, the human race—to activate the emergency break”? How is such daunting, immediate political power possible? Readings will include selections and excerpts from climate science literatures, official documents like IPCC reports, technical studies concerning technology, agriculture, and other areas of climate policy debate, alongside more radical analyses as well as contemporary and canonical political thought. 

Course Schedule

Tuesday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
April 12 — May 03, 2022
4 weeks


Registration Open