Against world-negation: a review of Climate Code Red

An Indian family displaced by flooding (@The Guardian)

It could justifiably be said that David Spratt and Philip Sutton’s Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action is a challenging read. The work’s authors, principally concerned with systematically exploring the present predicament of anthropogenic global warming, or climate change, come to conclude that the greenhouse gases emitted since the onset of the Industrial Revolution have already caused the Earth’s climate to warm to dangerous levels, and that hence the future warming expected to accompany the carbon-reduction trajectories to which governments of the world are in principle committed to realizing would induce catastrophic destruction. Extant climate-change policy is fundamentally irrational and deeply inhumane, in this calculus, for “the fate of most people, and most plants and animal species” that exist on Earth is essentially being jeopardized by the status quo and its defenders. Going far beyond the warming targets being considered in hegemonic discourse and policy, and even those endorsed at the April 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth held in Cochabamba, Bolivia,1 Spratt and Sutton find that the highest average-global temperature increase that can reasonably be allowed is one of 0.5°C beyond the temperatures that prevailed in 1750 CE, before industrialization—that is, 0.3° below the warming that has taken place to date. Any warming beyond this level would be unacceptably destructive to life on Earth, claim Spratt and Sutton.

In this sense, Climate Code Red is a reminder—assuming we need it—of the horror of the present state of affairs, of the radically wrong nature of what Hegel and Adorno refer to as the “world-course” (Weltlauf). The only potentially rational response to the threat of the climate catastrophe currently being enacted, as Spratt and Sutton assert in Benjaminian terms, is to treat the present as an emergency, and to act accordingly. As is the case, then, with other recent works on climate change, such as Mark Lynas’s 2008 Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet or Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2006 Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change, one can see how it is that the experience of Climate Code Red could be considered anxiety-provoking. As Avital Ronell claims, nonetheless, in Astra Taylor’s 2008 film Examined Life,2 “anxiety is the mood par excellence of ethicity”; for the sake of currently-existing humanity and its expected future generations, as well as the myriad of other species that reside on Earth, it is to be hoped that Ronell’s observation here is an accurate one.

The perspectives advanced by Spratt and Sutton in Climate Code Red are “desperate,” for they reflect “the desperate straits our [sic] planet is now in,” given the profundity of the threat presented by “business- and politics-as-usual” regarding climate change (132). The specter of climate catastrophe amounts in Spratt and Sutton’s conclusion to “the greatest threat in human history”; the likely futures being provoked by present approaches to the problem call into question the very future “viability” of Earth as “a life support system” (178, 251). The authors’ reviews of climate-related incidents experienced in recent years, taken together with the climatological reports they consider, make the basis for their argument clear. For one, Spratt and Sutton see the alarmingly violent recent recessions of Arctic sea-ice cover, and especially that experienced during 2007—to say nothing of this year’s reports, which show even more extreme reductions of the Arctic sea-ice minimum3—as demanding a radical reconsideration of approaches to the problem of climate change, since, among other things, the sustained loss of Arctic ice would prompt a reduction in albedo that would in turn bring about further warming. That the unprecedented 2007 and 2010 Arctic sea-ice minimums occurred within the context of the ‘achievement’ of a 0.7-0.8°C increase in average global temperatures beyond those of pre-industrial history shows the present level of warming to be unacceptably high, say the book’s authors, while consideration of the dire threats that current atmospheric carbon concentrations and their attendant warming-capacity pose to the Greenland ice sheet as well as the life that today resides in the Earth’s coastal areas should further support this claim (20-27, 33-44). Spratt and Sutton also claim already-extant climate change to be responsible for famine in Darfur (89); one could also indict this culprit for presently emerging famine conditions in Niger, Chad, and Mali,4 as well as murderous heatwaves experienced this summer in South Asia.5

Spratt and Sutton’s findings, decidedly radical in implication, revolt against the 2°C “safe-warming limit” advocated by many dominant global institutions—a target that nine-tenths of climatologists polled by The Guardian more than seven months before the disastrous Copenhagen climate talks claimed would in any case be missed, in light of present treatment of the question.6 Were global warming to be controlled to a 2°C increase in average global temperatures, though, such an achievement would amount to “a death sentence for billions of people and millions of species” (99), claim Spratt and Sutton, for a world experiencing such warming would see dramatic disruptions of agricultural production in northern India’s grain-belt, the complete disappearance of glacial ice in the Andes—which provides water for millions in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Chile—and mass starvation in Mali, among other effects.7 It should not be controversial to state that such outcomes, in addition to those that are to be expected to take place under conditions of warming beyond 2°C, should be avoided.

As with other climate commentators who have had books that deal with the climate predicament published in recent months—NASA’s James Hansen and’s Bill McKibben come to mind—Spratt and Sutton do not hold climate catastrophe to be at this point an inevitable eventuality. Instead, they insist that the present state of the world’s climate necessitates the realization of an emergency response within the little time which remains for the possibility of such. This state of emergency would be directed toward achieving a “safe climate”: a drop to the aforementioned 0.5°C average-global temperature increase, or a reduction from the present carbon-dioxide concentration of 390 parts per million (ppm) to 315 ppm. Warming at such a level would restore the summer Arctic sea-ice and avoid the various other life-negating consequences expected to accompany further warming. Policy directed at achieving such would, in Spratt and Sutton’s estimation, entail three important movements: cutting greenhouse-gas emissions to zero, removing excess atmospheric carbon, and engaging in the direct cooling of the Earth. World society must come to become ‘post-carbon’ in the first place to avoid significant future temperature-increases and also embark on massive re-afforestation campaigns to draw down current carbon-concentrations—but these two moves, crucial to preventing climate change of a catastrophic scale, would paradoxically itself provoke warming, as the artificial cooling effect of industrially produced aerosols would disappear with the abolition of carbon emissions. Since Spratt and Sutton assume that the transformations needed to realize a post-carbon global society would, if seriously pursued, require at least two decades to be achieved, they naturally expect greenhouse-gas emissions to continue for some time, thus also inducing warming. In the authors’ view, the warming that is to be expected to result from the emissions expected to occur during the envisioned transition system—an increase in average global temperatures of 1 or 2°C beyond that experienced to date, for a total increase of 1.8-2.8°C—would be too dangerous, and so they advocate geo-engineering schemes to cancel out the potential for such warming. Their treatment of this last proposal is brief, referred to quickly as constituting a “least-worst option” for preventing climate catastrophe (132). They do not consider reports that warn that geo-engineering may result in disruptions to the Asian monsoon season and exacerbate drought in Africa, thus imperiling the lives of a great number of humans—two milllion, claim estimates reported by Silvia Ribeiro in La Jornada.8 They do however insist that any large-scale geo-engineering project, once implemented, would necessarily have to exist continuously during the entirety of the hypothetical transition period; for it to be suspended at any point during this time would result in unacceptably dangerously levels of warming.

As should be clear, the thoroughgoing changes called for by Spratt and Sutton would be possible only through a “great transformation” of existing society. The market, which the authors of Climate Code Red find to be incapable of “respond[ing] by itself at the depth and speed required” (192), would need to be heavily regulated as a first step, though Spratt and Sutton seem to endorse planned economics and a concurrent reduction of the market’s role in society altogether (224). Consumption patterns deemed “non-essential” are to be “curtailed or rationed” in this vision (224); “mass air travel” by planes would preferably not exist (196). Strangely enough, the authors at no point directly consider the importance that the general adoption of vegetarian diets, let alone vegan ones, could have for the avoidance of climate catastrophe, considering the dramatic greenhouse-gas emissions implicated in the mass-raising of livestock for exploitation and slaughter.9

Spratt and Sutton do make clear that their favored approach to the specter of catastrophic climate change is not to be an initiative imposed by technocratic elites but rather one to be advanced by the active democratic participation of “the broad community” by means of deliberative decision-making processes (234-6). The authors’ call here for building participatory democracy comprised of a “fully engaged” citizenry aligns with Noam Chomsky’s assertion that present trends of popular disenfranchisement constitute a “critical challenge for the future” that must be overcome, if reason is to be given a chance to prevail and humanity afforded a chance to avoid the numerous threats to its survival.10 With regard to preventing future wars in the Middle East, Chomsky’s call in this sense for the realization of “functioning democratic societies” may be a convincing policy-proposal,11 but it is less so on the question of responses to climate change, given that nearly half of U.S. citizens believe the various threats posed by climate change to be exaggerated, while 46 percent hold either that scientists are unsure about global warming or that it is not occurring at all.12 Similarly worrying developments have been seen in Britain, where the percentage of polled adults who take climate change to “definitely” be real has dropped from 44 to 31 percent since last year.13 Both positions are radically at odds with general attitudes found in most other countries of the world, as well of course with climatological realities. It is to be hoped, then, that the democracy-promotion practices endorsed by Spratt and Sutton would allow for the overhauling of such disastrous perspectives through educational processes.

Questions could surely be raised regarding the can-do optimism evident in Climate Code Red. Spratt and Sutton’s work is not a melancholic lamentation of the “systematized horror”14 of the present and its likely futures but rather a reasoned proposal aimed at “the prevention and avoidance of total catastrophe.”15 At points, the work’s authors do note that the implementation of their proposals is “clearly a very challenging task,” and perhaps even an “impossible” one (111), but they proceed by assuming that such can be achieved; indeed, they base their work on the “need to start from the assumption that we will not fail in our efforts” to avoid catastrophic climate change (229). They hold, for example, that the ruling classes of China and India will find in the threat posed to the Himalayan glaciers by climate change reason to conform with the policy recommendations advanced in Climate Code Red, just as “conservative governments and corporations” the world over will come to acknowledge that profit cannot be had on a climate-devastated Earth (232). Unfortunately, such comments seem utopian in the extreme; the faith Spratt and Sutton place in the reconstructive possibilities to be had by means of deliberative democracy seems more justified. As made clear in both Climate Code Red and alarming climatological findings released since its publication,16 then, the present urgency of instituting radical counter-power is absolute.

The treatment of spaces referred to as belonging to ‘developing societies’ or ‘the Third World’ in Climate Code Red seems also to merit examination. Spratt and Sutton of course recognize that climate change constitutes a dire threat to humanity as a whole, but they do not seem to emphasize that it will “produce dramatically unequal impacts across regions and social classes, reinforcing, rather than diminishing, geopolitical inequality and conflict,” as Mike Davis has it.17 Climate Code Red, in this sense, is not Davis’s 2002 book Late Victorian Holocausts, a work that examines the catastrophic famines suffered by millions of residents of South Asia, East Africa, and China facing the climatic disruptions associated with the El Niño Southern Oscillation that coincided with the imposition of capitalist imperialism at the close of the nineteenth century; Spratt and Sutton do not systematically explore the various negations that climate change could present to the peoples of the global South, as Lynas obliquely does.18 Neither do they claim hegemonic climate policy to find its basis in principles similar to those that “funneled six million people in Europe into furnaces,” as Sudanese climate negotiator Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping claimed at the close of the Copenhagen climate conference,19 nor do they characterize existing approaches to the problem as equivalent to climate genocide, as Gideon Polya asserts.20 Criticism of Spratt and Sutton on such grounds may however easily be countered by recognition that their work as a whole is dedicated precisely to avoiding the various horrors posed by climate change, however they may be termed.

Less clear than Spratt and Sutton’s commitment to achieving a safe climate is their take on capitalism, a present reality that has clear implications—principally highly negative ones—for the project set forth in Climate Code Red. Given the exegesis of Spratt and Sutton’s arguments as presented above, their profound opposition to the existent should not be in doubt; on the second page of text in the work, indeed, we find guest writer Ian Dunlop claiming that the “ideological preoccupation with a market economy that is based on maximising short-run profit is rapidly leading us towards an uninhabitable planet” (xii). Spratt and Sutton themselves argue for the general establishment of “local and global ‘Commons,’” or spaces held “’in common’ for the benefit of all” (216), a position remarkably similar to that of the “intergenerational commons” that would make available its “fruits and benefits” to “every member of every generation.”21 In the closing pages of Climate Code Red, Spratt and Sutton assert that concern for “shareholder value” is be subordinated to concern for “a viable future for our planet” and the lives of those who currently exist together with those who are expected to be born in the future (253-4). Here, as in analyses reviewed above, the authors express radically anti-capitalist perspectives, though they fail to identify their opposition to capitalism explicitly in the book’s text. This lack of clarity is reflected in their treatment of technological development and questions related to the financing of the transitional period aimed at realizing a safe climate. For one, the authors fail to consider the seemingly sensible possibility of employing space-based solar power as a means of moving toward a post-carbon global society, as explored briefly by Kolbert (p. 144-6), and they constrain themselves to discussing strategies for the financing of the general adoption of renewable-energy sources using the terms and understandings handed down to them by dominant power-interests—as though the self-instituted planned economy they seem to favor could not come up with more rational modes of valuing things. Furthermore, Spratt and Sutton do not come to advocate the expropriation of capital to finance the thoroughgoing changes that will be needed for the transition period, as Marxists and anarchists might, nor do they call for the resources currently dedicated to military spending to be re-directed toward addressing the climate emergency, as Clarke does.22

These shortcomings aside, Spratt and Sutton’s contributions to addressing looming climate catastrophe are in general terms well-reasoned and much-needed. The prospect of the “great transformation” of existing society held out by the authors of Climate Code Red, however, together with the more general commitment to prevent the loss of “most of the life on this planet” (145), would likely be better served if their analyses advanced perspectives explicitly critical of the world-destructiveness of the capitalist mode of production.


1Cf. the People’s Agreement proposed at the conference: English translation and Spanish original

2Trailer available here

5Jason Burke, Hundreds die in Indian heatwave,” The Guardian, 30 May 2010

7Mark Lynas, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008)

8“No hay planeta B,” 13 March 2010

9George Monbiot, “Why vegans were right all along,” The Guardian, 24 December 2002ñ Felicity Carus, “UN urges global move to meat and dairy-free diet,” The Guardian, 2 June 2010

10Hopes and Prospects (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010), p. 170

11Ibid, p. 135-7

14Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (London: Verso, 2005 [1951]), p. 113

15Ibid, History and Freedom: Lectures 1964-1965 (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2006), p. 143

16Juliette Jowit and Christine Ottery, Global emissions targets will lead to 4C temperature rise, say studies,” The Guardian, x July 2010; Steve Connor and Michael McCarthy, “World on course for catastrophic 6° rise, reveal scientists,” The Independent, 18 November 2009

17“Living on the Ice Shelf: Humanity’s Melt-Down,” in The Green Zone: The Environmental Costs of Militarism (Oakland: AK Press, 2009), p. 14

18Op. cit.

21Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009)

2 Responses to “Against world-negation: a review of Climate Code Red”

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