Cultural politics of climate change – current SSHRC research grant

In May 2014, I was awarded a grant by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to work on the ‘cultural politics of climate change’. This is a large, 5-year project, involving collaborators from various universities, specifically Caroline Andrew, Harriet Bulkeley, Simon Dalby, Shane Gunster, Matthew Hoffmann, Paul Saurette, and Johannes Stripple.

The project has four sub-projects.

The first looks at explicit attempts at “carbon governmentality”: campaigns or governing initiatives that seek to shape individual subjects. A useful example is the notion of “carbon dieting”.

The second explores the politics of attempting to manage greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions at the level of a single city – Ottawa – where many of the key conflicts over transport, housing, and energy arise in daily life.

The third explores the campaigns to undermine climate change science, attempting to go beyond an exploration in terms of corporate interests and conservative thinktanks (the focus of existing literature) to explore the underlying cultural values at stake.

The fourth explores how climate change subjectivities, and the conflicts around them, are constructed and reflected in popular culture – film, novels, cartoons, and so on. These are deliberately designed to be diverse, and thus to explore the breadth of the sites in which the general phenomena arise.

You can find more details of the project here: Cultural politics of climate change description


Sabbatical readings

I am on research leave in the Winter Semester. Can’t say I’m not ready for it.

I decided what I really need is to read. I don’t need time to write, but I am in grave danger of having no real ideas about which to write. Jo came up with the great metaphor (not least given my gardening tendencies) that my soil is exhausted and I need to add some organic matter – leaf mould, sheep manure, etc. to fertilise the brain.

So I asked a bunch of my colleagues, with different sorts of interests, the following question:

Can you give me a couple of suggestions of readings – books or articles – that you’ve found really exciting and interesting, that you’ve read in the last year or two? I don’t care in what area (I need to be eclectic), just the most interesting things you’ve read, full of ideas to get the ‘little grey cells’ going.
And please don’t agonise, whatever comes into your head first!

Here are the responses from those who responded, in no particular order. Some are more obvious than others, but a pretty decent reading list to be going on with. They are academics, so the ‘two’ constraint was clearly a struggle for some :-).

Reviel Netz, Barbed Wire

Grégoire Chamayou, Manhunts: a philosophical history

Franco Bifo Berardi, After the Future

John Blewitt and Ray Cunningham (eds) The Post-growth project

Andrew Dobson, Listening for Democracy

Andrew Barry, Material Politics

Warren Magnusson, Politics of Urbanism

Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (two votes)

Tanya Murray Li, The Will to Improve

Clive Hamilton Earthmasters

Barbara Kingsolver Flight Behavior

James Lovelock Rough Ride to the Future

Peter Taylor Extraordinary Cities

Saskia Sassen Expulsions

James Meek Private Island

Anna Tsing Friction

Cary Wolfe Before the Law

Timothy Campbell Improper Life

Timothy Mitchell Rule of Experts

Geoff Mann Disassembly Required

Jessica Dempsey Enterprising Nature (not out yet!)

The Polity Resources series books (Timber, Fish, Coltan, Oil, Land, Food, etc.).

Stacy VanDeveer’s Trans Atlantic Institute report “Still Digging

Gavin Bridge’s 2004 Annual Review of Energy and Environment piece on Mining and the Environment.

Nicole Detraz: International Security and Gender (2012, Polity) and Environmental Security and Gender (2015-but out already, Routledge)

Stephen Greenblatt, The Swerve: How the World became Modern (Norton, 2011). A brilliant read about Renaissance book-hunters rediscovering lost classics from antiquity. (MP: I’ve already read this – it is excellent)

Melissa Lane, Greek and Roman Political Ideas (Pelican, 2014). Great intellectual history that explores key political concepts in the ancient world.

Brendan Simms, Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present (Penguin, 2014). A very readable book that tells the history of Europe exactly as the sub-title says.

Slavoj Zizek First as Tragedy, then as Farce

The documentary series Untold History of the United States

Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism
Robert Heilbroner, Worldly Philosophers
William James, Pragmatism.

Thanks very much to Michele Betsill, Simon Dalby, Richard Devetak, Andy Dobson, Steve Hinchliffe, Mark Lacy, Robert Macneil, Tom Princen, Kara Shaw, Johannes Stripple.

With U.S.-China climate deal, Canada’s isolation deepens – See more at:

Tuesday’s U.S.-China climate deal has been hailed widely as an “historic deal” that dramatically changes the dynamics of international climate politics as countries search for a new global agreement by the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UN Climate Convention in Paris in 2015.

Clearly it is a welcome development in a number of senses: it involves a very public commitment from the world’s largest emitters that will be hard to renege on; it puts pressure on other countries that have not already made pledges (many already have) to reduce emissions, or to up the ambition of their pledges in some cases; and it can act to create further trust amongst countries that the major emitters are negotiating in good faith building momentum towards Paris.

for more, see:

Some more thoughts on the EU ETS backloading debate

I’ve been struck by how a number of the framings of the backloading (withdrawing European Union Allowances  – EUAs – from the system for a specific period of time) debate re the EU ETS have attempted a ‘depoliticising’ move – have in effect argued that what the failure of the EU ETS (so far, it’s coming back to the EU parliament later on this month) to agree to backloading should be interpreted to mean that decisions about the EU ETS should be taken out of the politicians and put into the hands of ‘competent’ technocrats.

Katherine Lake at the University of Melbourne, for example, argued that we need a “carbon bank“, to make decisions about the allocation of EUAs, instead of the European Parliament. It would operate along similar lines to an independent central bank for the supply of money: given a specific target (like the inflation targets most central banks work to) and then left to manage the availability of carbon allowances to meet that target. The Carbon Markets and Investors Association (CMIA), the lobby group for carbon traders, were more explicit and took to Twitter to argue that the EUETS “should be in the hands of a professional independent Carbon body not MEPs”.

What seems to me to be going on here is a shift in how carbon markets are understood to operate. In this framing, the carbon market becomes an end not a means. It becomes understood as something that is first and foremost a market, and should operate according to the “normal” function of other markets. Prices should be determined by supply and demand, and where prices collapse (as they have since the recession), this implies some sort of disequilibrium in the functioning of the market that needs to be corrected.

But of course carbon markets are artifices in the extreme. Perhaps no markets are “natural” in the sense that Adam Smith understood them (as the reflection of the “natural propensity to barter and truck”) but carbon markets more than perhaps any other arise not out of a “spontaneous” formation amongst buyers and sellers, but as a specific regulatory intervention designed to reduce GHG emissions. The official economic rationale is that if they work properly they do so at the lowest overall cost to society.

But this means that first and foremost, carbon markets are means, not ends. They are there to help achieve GHG reductions, anything else is secondary. They may in fact be useless at doing this, in which case they should be abandoned (as many critics of carbon markets argue powerfully).

But this means that the backloading debate should not be understood as about the “proper functioning of the market”, and thus depoliticised via the establishment of a carbon bank. In effect what occurs in the carbon bank proposal is that the target that such a bank would be asked to achieve is not a specific GHG emissions reduction target but a carbon price target (in which case you might as well simply have a carbon tax). In a cap and trade system, the aim is for a specific reduction in GHG emissions, not a specific carbon price. So to backload, or withdraw allowances from the system, is to increase the ambition of the overall climate policy target.

Now this would be an excellent thing, and as I have argued elsewhere, one of the advantages of a cap and trade system (they have many flaws) is that in a recession it creates pressure for making climate policy more ambitious (whereas with a carbon tax the pressure would go the other way) but it is anything but a simple managerial or technical matter. It goes to the heart of our collective decisions about climate change policy. To think otherwise is to treat carbon markets as ends in themselves, which in effect is to treat the pursuit of the interests of the carbon traders (who want high prices to generate demand for hedging instruments) or some of the regulated firms (electricity generators who are net sellers of EUAs, for example) as the primary goal of the policy. It is highly useful that such actors see benefits of climate policy, as it helps sustain the legitimacy of climate policy. But the basic goals of the policy – the overall level of ambition in emissions reductions, should be kept in the hands of open political debate.

Thinking Again About the Crisis of EU Climate Policy

The demise of carbon markets has been predicted a number of times. The latest episode to provoke this claim was the failure of the European Parliament to strengthen the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) in a recent vote on what is called ‘backloading’, or withholding a number of emission allowances under the system from auction to create scarcity and drive up carbon prices. The Economist proclaimed ETS, RIP?, while the byline for George Monbiot’s piece in the Guardian stated that “the European emissions trading system died last week”.

But before we see the current problem of the EU ETS as a signal that ET has failed, think about the politics of the main overarching alternative—carbon taxes.

Canadian energy strategy: the challenge of integrating climate change

If the Canadian energy strategy proposed by Alison Redford is to be anything other than a disaster for climate change, the two need to be consciously integrated.

for more, see

A Twitter teaching adventure

I am planning to use Twitter in my first year intro to political science class next year (Fall Semester). It’s a big class, 200-odd students. The focus is conceptual – on the core ideas in political science they will need in their programme (power, the state, legitimacy, democracy, that sort of thing).

My plan is to use it principally to get the students into habits of sharing material, having online conversations – using Twitter’s public character in the hope that these conversations will become self-starting.

So the plan at the moment is to:
• Require the students to create a Twitter account and to follow me so I can use it to post material about the course to them (a colleague did a show of hands and she said around a third of her students said they had Twitter accounts already).
• Compile a list of suggested Twitter accounts to follow so they will get course-relevant feeds.
• Create a hashtag for the course and get them to look at it regularly and post anything related to the course using the hashtag – articles they found useful or interesting, ideas in the media of relevance, questions to other students or to me.
• During class, I plan to switch the screen to the hashtag periodically to allow them to use that as a way of posing questions to the class or reacting to points I make. Ideally I would have a separate screen showing the hashtag constantly, but I’m not sure it’s technically possible in the classroom I’ll be in.

Their participation in the hashtag conversation will form part of a participation grade for the course as a whole (probably just 5%). My aim is that at least a decent number will become self-organising and start to get into good habits of using it for research (rather than just following @MileyCyrus or this year’s teen heart-throb). It also seems to me this might help correct the bias against introverts in grading in-class participation.

This of course leaves lots of questions I haven’t worked out yet. For example:

• Should I create a twitter account and use that for Tweeting to the course? I’ve actually already done this but then thought it was an unnecessary stage. The hashtag at the moment seems to me to get what I want in terms of participation. The only downside of using my own account is that anyone following me personally will get all my course-related tweets.
• Who would be good people to get them to follow? I was going to put a few good newspaper politics feeds (but not many, it’s not a current affairs course), and some academic general ones I know (like the LSE politics blog feed). But any ideas of good feeds for general discussions about the nature of politics as a subject gratefully received.
• Any other ideas as to how I could use it for teaching purposes? I did find this useful:


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