The Real Cost of Climate Change

Caroline Kuritzkes

Jedediah Purdy, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene
Harvard University Press, 336 pages,$29.95

IN AUGUST 2017, after months of threats, President Trump notified the United Nations that the US would withdraw from the Paris climate accords, undoing with the stroke of a pen his country’s pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before the year 2025. The billionaire president’s 2018 budget proposal slashes funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by nearly a third, promising steep cuts to national and state-level programs that regulate clean water and air.

But readers of After Nature will find little about the American political right in Jedediah Purdy’s book on America’s longstanding and now perilous conception of nature. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a law professor at Duke University, Purdy turns to political and legal institutions for the potential to shape how we imagine and value nature for the better. The 43-year-old Harvard and Yale graduate claims to offer a politics for what he and others call the Anthropocene, the age of climate change, distinguished by humanity’s sweeping and indelible influence over global ecology. He presents a largely familiar history of American ideas about nature to help readers orient themselves in the Anthropocene — to piece together what are, in his view, key ecological, humanitarian, and political questions that for centuries have captivated and transformed the American environmental imagination.

At a moment defined by unyielding political paralysis in the face of climate crisis, After Nature takes up an ambitious, if not insurmountable, task. Even more so when discourse on almost every legislative priority of this decade—immigration reform, healthcare, and the basic facts on climate change—has shifted intractably to the right, and when congressional compromise on just about anything seems like a distant pipedream.

But even three years ago, before Trump’s ascendancy, the central questions animating Purdy’s work were equally formidable, and equally vexing. How are we to forestall imminent devastation of apocalyptic magnitude and mind-boggling complexity, with complete certainty that such devastation will strike, and even greater uncertainty about how it will alter the lives of billions of people? How are we supposed to act on such an urgent and impossible problem, to organize a response to the prospect of our collective demise?

These questions keep us up at night and haunt our visions of the future. Yet the politics Purdy offers does not bring us much closer to answering them. ‘Climate change,’ for instance, does not appear in the main body of the work until after more than two-hundred and twenty-five pages. Instead, Purdy devotes the bulk of his book to tracing the genealogy of American conceptions of nature, particularly in laws. It is sound scholarship that comprehensively and persuasively charts nearly three centuries of American intellectual and environmental history. But the stakes attached to climate crisis force us to reconsider the value of philosophy without praxis. To what extent does cognitively ‘reconceiving’ institutions advance the work of remaking them altogether, as we must?

Often, scholars and changemakers play complementary roles. One envisions, debates, and recommends; the other enacts. Purdy thoughtfully contributes to the discourse, arguing that the planet’s looming climate catastrophe is not a problem of climate science deniers or the Republican Party, and instead one of collective imagination. But climate change calls for something greater than soul-searching, a more urgent and drastic response that is not found in After Nature’s limited engagement with practical policy in the final quarter of the book. Our climate crisis requires a radical approach to how Americans should understand the place of history in the fight against climate change and towards climate justice before it’s too late.

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Purdy seeks a solution in democracy, which he admits is an unusual lifeline now that the democratic process in the United States is more beholden to lobbyists and corporate power than ever, and when it just delivered the most severe anti-climate policies in decades. Granted, Purdy advocates for a resoundingly pure democracy that reflects the interests not of the one-percent, but of a truly inclusive commons—a public no longer mired in contradictions of slavery, colonization of indigenous lands, or the forced disenfranchisement of entire sectors of American society, but instead guided by the notion of common humanity. The ideal democracy should also be a system of self-restraint, he argues, capable of limiting the scope of human avarice so that natural resources can be shared fairly and equitably. ‘Democratic self-restraint can come only from democratic self-assertion: a political community must be able to act effectively and decisively on hard questions in order to commit to accepting certain limitations,’ Purdy concludes. ‘The result of an undemocratic Anthropocene is an inhumane world built on unfair terms. That would be nothing new, but the prospect of it is a reason to try to do better.’

But is it reasonable to expect that we will achieve a better democracy in time? ‘The power of organized money in politics has only increased. It is a common—and fair—complaint that the U.S. government is distorted through and through by the political power of wealth. In environmental matters, the problem is even worse,’ Purdy concedes. ‘It’s as if the Constitution gave three votes to everyone who wants to keep things the way they are, and only one vote to those who seek to change them.’ Let's say that we're able, by some miracle, to wrest political power away from deep-pocketed lobbyists. Even a fair, representative democracy might not be any friendlier to the climate. However noble the goal of stripping elections of corporate influence, it does not seem entirely accurate to conclude that only the wealthiest US voters have a vested interest in subsidizing fossil fuels and industrial agriculture. Tens of millions of Americans who commute to work on federal highways and purchase cheap and abundant meat, for example, benefit from policies that regard greenhouse gas emissions as costless. At times, Purdy seems to conflate the democratic process with the expression of common humanity, the pursuit of equality, and the celebration of nature, presupposing a great deal about the electoral outcomes even the purest democracy might prioritize. What is to prevent a democratic majority from continuing to elect platforms that favor unabated fossil fuel consumption, even in the absence of gerrymandering, lobbying, and other moneyed interests that shackle US climate policies to corporate whims? What guarantees that the majority of voters will care about combating climate change at all? When it comes to the heating planet, the one percent’s preferences might align with the concerns of the masses more often than Purdy is willing to wager.

It takes Purdy more than 225 pages to arrive at climate change as the central problem for democracy to solve. The first three-quarters of his book trace the intellectual history of American visions of nature—from manifest destiny to Romantic inspiration, utilitarianism, and modern-day ecology—and the expression of those visions in US legislation and popular culture. The historical actors who surface from this portrait were elites of their time: early British colonists, Romantic poets, Hudson River School painters, Sierra Club founders, 19th-century imperialists, and modern-day environmentalists. If anything, this elite-focused history illuminates Purdy’s final conclusions with striking clarity. ‘Undue privilege is not intrinsic in environmental imagination; it is just the product of broader inequalities that have marked all the politics of the modern world, including the politics of nature,’ he writes. ‘Saying that the Anthropocene should take its standard from democracy means that everyone must have a voice in shaping the world.’ A politics for the Anthropocene cannot be dictated by the powerful few, or today’s version of the narrow class of educated thinkers and statesmen who legislated on nature during the earlier eras under Purdy’s consideration.

Purdy occasionally inscribes himself in the elite history he traces. ‘[John] Muir’s choice of inheritance fit the solitary, ecstatic persona he created in his writing. He portrayed himself as a kind of paladin in restless search of sublimity,’ Purdy writes of the 19th-century conservationist and founder of the Sierra Club. His conclusions about democracy and climate change arrive too late after dozens of passages from American philosophers of nature—Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others. Not to mention the many instances when Purdy slips into his own reflections on nature, beauty, and aesthetics. There's nothing wrong with loving nature for its own sake, and investing in the preservation of forests, waterways, and natural resources for aesthetic reasons alone.

But aesthetic concerns pale in comparison to the far higher stakes associated with climate change that do not feature prominently enough in his book: uninhabitable heat; hurricanes, storms, and flooding of growing force and frequency; agricultural and infrastructural devastation; food and water shortages; and unforeseen epidemics—all of which will continue to hit primarily, and most punishingly, the world’s poorest, who live in parts of the globe least equipped to cope with climate-related disaster and who are least responsible for more than two centuries of surging greenhouse gas emissions. The limitations of After Nature only aggravate the impatience so many of us feel about climate change: We don’t want further meditation on the theoretical parameters of a problem already the object of decades-long procrastination. We want action: concrete steps toward a just solution not only to our greatest existential threat, but also our greatest moral problem. The clock is ticking.

There is indeed a place for history in today’s climate crisis—but not necessarily the history to which Purdy draws our attention. The story he tells embraces the United States as its stage, effectively excluding the rest of the world from the democratic polity he envisions taking shape to solve climate change together. There is another story, though, a global story, of two-hundred years of manufacturing financed predominantly by British and US capital. It’s a story of how the planet’s air became poisoned as a result of the sustained import of raw materials from Latin America and Africa to northern industrializing markets. This story also involves slavery and colonization; the sequestration of palm oil, coal, timber, coffee, sugar, bananas, and precious metals by North Americans and Europeans; the exploitative labor systems they set in place to produce dozens of commodities outside their borders; the factories that churned these raw materials into finished goods for enjoyment by the world’s richest and most powerful; and the grave ecological crisis that the forces of capitalism set in motion.

To confront climate change today is to confront the harrowing reality that responsibility and consequence are not necessarily aligned. Humanity now deals not simply in debts that past generations owe the future, but in debts owed by the wealthiest of the world’s wealthy to the poorest of the poor, thrusting into stark relief the world’s most glaring inequalities and colonialism’s most haunting legacies. It’s only through an international prism that a politics for both climate change and climate justice actually coheres.

Let’s not kid ourselves: a just solution to climate change will require billions of people to radically alter how they live their lives. Naomi Klein, the Canadian journalist, author, and critic of capitalism, argues compellingly in her 2014 bestseller This Changes Everything that climate change offers an unprecedented opportunity for redistribution of global wealth.[1] Beneficiaries of the world’s most industrialized nations will have to turn back the clocks to a time when we consumed drastically less than we do today. Staving off climate change will demand extremely strict regulation of carbon emissions—not simply at the national level, but by a supranational enforcement body with the strength to hold governments accountable and exact punishment on countries that fail to comply.

Today’s climate abuse and global poverty are the intertwined consequences of the slave trade that facilitated resource extraction on colonial lands. Carbon reparations must therefore be of utmost concern to any climate oversight mechanism that resolves not to defer to oil corporations, fossil fuel investors, US multinationals, and other moneyed interests hostile to the environment by design. ‘Coal helped Western nations to deliberately appropriate other people’s lives and lands; and as the emissions from that coal (and later oil and gas) continually built up in the atmosphere, it gave these same nations the means to inadvertently appropriate their descendants’ sky as well, gobbling up most of our shared atmosphere’s capacity to safely absorb carbon,’ Klein writes in her discussion of reparations to former European colonies that participated in the transatlantic slave trade.[2] And, as a result of colonial robbery, today’s developing countries are ensnared in a perilous Catch-22, ‘squeezed between the impacts of global warming, made worse by persistent poverty, and by their need to alleviate that poverty, which, in the current economic system, can be done most cheaply and easily by burning a great deal more carbon.’[3] Reparations provide a unifying and powerful mechanism not only for ensuring our collective survival, but also for addressing global inequality’s root causes. Klein notes that the Stockholm Environment Institute and the EcoEquity think tank have developed an emission reduction plan that better accounts for the Global North’s responsibility for cumulative emissions while respecting the Global South’s right to develop sustainably. Such an approach for ‘Greenhouse Development Rights’ calculates each country’s emission reduction burden—its ‘fair share’ of the global climate effort—according to a responsibility and capacity index, proportional to each country’s level of wealth.[4] Apart from reducing carbon emissions at home, wealthier countries can also meet their climate obligation by subsidizing the transition to low-carbon production and consumption in the Global South. ‘There are, in the immediate term, plenty of affordable ways for Northern countries to begin to honor our climate debts without going broke—from erasing the foreign debts currently owed by developing countries in exchange for climate action to loosening green energy patents and transferring the associated technological know-how,’ she proposes.[5]

Thinking beyond US borders informs larger considerations that Purdy conspicuously ignores, such as who precisely his democracy would include and how it should be organized. Countries least responsible for carbon emissions and least equipped to weather their impact must hold enough representation in international regulatory bodies to collect climate debts from their First World counterparts. But an international outlook might also lead us to conclude that hedging political bets on democratic procedure as a mask for real, and principled, priorities of reparations and redistribution puts the cart well before the horse. A democratic process of supranational scope is only a politics we can rely on as long as it demands the most severe reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption by the world’s most powerful, who fear they have the most to lose.

Global histories of climate change have much to teach us about demanding justice for past wrongs to shape climate action for the future. Purdy has made a powerful contribution to America's self-understanding. But self-reflection is insufficient, if only because the United States is one of many players in a complex geopolitical system. When it comes to climate change, history should be mobilized not only to clarify present thinking, but also to rectify climate debts that span centuries and continents, and reduce emissions accordingly. Philosophical critiques won’t move those who are closest to the levers of power, nor will they attenuate the impact of climate disasters that will continue to strike with greater intensity. However enriching Purdy's work may be, the clock ticks on.


[1] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).
[2] Klein, This Changes Everything, 416.
[3] Ibid.
[4]  “Greenhouse Development Rights – Climate Equity Reference Project,” gdrights, (accessed August 23, 2017).
[5] Klein, This Changes Everything, 418.