The Silence of Kyoto: Q Symposium 2015


This weekend I had the honour of attending the Q Symposium: Peace and Security in a Quantum Age, hosted by the Centre for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney. I spoke in a session on “Diplomacy” with Rebecca Adler-Nissen and Vincent Pouliot, and addressed the challenge that climate change and the looming global ecological crisis posed for the institution of diplomacy and international relations.

The Silence of Kyoto

Diplomacy, Failure and the Planetary Scale

Our concern in this session is with diplomacy: diplomacy as it relates to geopolitical, scientific, and metaphysical rupture. To this we can add a concern about humanity’s failure to match them with political rupture, at least political rupture of the right kind. A concern with the terrible distance that separates these ruptures, that separates the events from themselves and from the knowledge – public, scientific, political – we can make in response to them. We think of what we knew, or could have known, and failed to actually know. We think of what futures flowed and did not flow, even amid great complexity, from the choice of one mesh of paths and possibilities over another.

It is certainly inspired of James Der Derian to seize on the hundred year anniversary of the Great War to ask ‘why the radical disjunctures of WWI and quantum theory changed everything but, pace Einstein, our way of thinking about international peace and security’. This dilemma has certainly been a stable question for international relations and one familiar to me from my doctoral work and my teaching in first year world politics courses. However it also serves as a provocation to think how other events and ruptures throughout the 20th Century simultaneously changed everything and failed to change everything.

Today, I want to not only consider the choices of diplomacy, but the architectonic of diplomacy: the ontological architecture of which diplomacy is an expression, that is, the state-centric system and the narrow possibilities of international purpose and order it enables. Maybe diplomacy is all we have, but I will argue that as an institution it is failing us because the crisis we face demands fundamental change in the underlying system and commitments of which diplomacy is an epiphenomenon. Diplomacy is the visible hands of a watch running down, when what we need to do is not merely expose its interior workings, but re-imagine our entire structure of social-political time. Even as my field became obsessed with power, it failed to rethink what kinds of power are permissible, failed to rethink how we share, make and distribute power across the increasingly common space of the planet. It failed to think how we are increasingly subject to a power – the recalcitrant power of social nature – that we did not intend to author and is utterly indifferent to us.

Nuclear weapons are certainly one of those ruptures; in the short book I am working on, Uranium, I am writing about how the Los Alamos scientists began an anguished internal debate in late 1944 about the moral enormity of what they were working on and whether it was right to use  the weapon on human beings and more concretely on Japan. Presciently, they also worried about their ability to spur a new arms race and destabilise the fabric of international relations. Their activism failed to prevent mass killing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but flowered briefly when their concerns were taken up by the State Department in the Acheson-Lilienthal report – which recommended international control over nuclear weapons and dangerous elements of the nuclear fuel cycle – but died diplomatically amid Cold War suspicion and strategic bad faith. This was striking, darkly cosmopolitan moment when global nuclear government was actively contemplated, not because of some teleological belief in the common brotherhood of humanity but because of the common threat to humanity the nuclear arms race would present. To reframe a comment by Karl Jaspers in his book The Atomic Bomb and the Future of Man, it was as if humanity finally conceived of its own totality in the image of its extinction. It was an intriguing and important attempt to do what the strategist Bernard Brodie asked at the time, for the world to ‘adjust its politics to its physics’. The question for us now is: can we match our planet with our politics? Or are we doomed to tragic disjuncture?

One cannot necessarily trace Hiroshima and Nagasaki to August 1914, but they were the culmination of two decades of total war and global upheaval that saw the death of tens of millions and made visible humanity’s capacity for self-extinction in the form of total war, genocide and nuclear war. Among other failures, there was a failure to understand, in its true and unprecedented horror, the scale of these processes, which took in the entirety of the planet and imperilled its very survival. This scale is simultaneously of the human and beyond the human. To draw on Hannah Arendt’s argument in the Origins of Totalitarianism, to begin and presage the extinction of entire worlds also was an appropriative forgetting of earlier atrocities on a global scale: slavery, and the systematic destruction of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Australasia and parts of Africa. An alternative forgetting inured us to moral enormity and scale – or at least sought to anaesthetise it – through narratives of moral or historical progress. This is true of a line of thinking that runs from Hegel through Kant, Marx and Francis Fukuyama, but is also present in the critical international theory of Ken Booth.

It is the question of scale that brings me to my real subject today, what I take to be our guns of August: the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. This is diplomacy’s sole treaty artefact on the sixth extinction and a climate change future that the International Institute of Strategic Studies asserted would be ‘catastrophic – on the level of nuclear war’. Negotiated in 1997 but not in force until 2005, Kyoto was originally a modest commitment by a small group of countries to cut emissions over four years; it has since been extended to the end of 2020 – just five and a half years away – and has achieved cuts of 29% below business as usual. Yet global emissions as a whole soared by 40% and have risen to historically unprecedented levels. In 2014 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its fifth Assessment Report with some alarming conclusions: between 1983-2012 the Earth had endured its warmest 30 years since 1400; observed global warming is already between 0.65-1.06°C; and the oceans have seen a 26% increase in acidification ‘since the beginning of the industrial era’ and already risen 0.19 metres. As Clive Hamilton argues in his Requiem for a Species, climate scientists fear that the warming built into existing atmospheric carbon concentrations will make it difficult to restrain cumulative warming below 3 degrees even with concerted international action, at which point the arctic ice sheet will have melted, triggering a rise in sea levels of 7 metres. They are also warning that international society’s assumed ceiling for emissions and ‘dangerous’ climate change (~1000 GtC or 2uC) will in fact ‘spur ‘‘slow’’ feedbacks and eventual warming of 3–4uC with disastrous consequences’. Instead we must limit atmospheric greenhouse gases to ~500 GtC or 350 ppm of CO2, which means dramatically reducing existing concentrations rather than continuing to emit more.

However, nearly two decades after the Kyoto Protocol, states have yet to agree to binding emissions reductions that are informed by expert scientific opinion and will cumulatively work to prevent dangerous climate change. Diplomacy has in fact embedded a dangerous level of average temperature increase as a goal – at the 2009 Copenhagen meeting and in European Union policy. States still talk and think as if their agency matters and is morally unproblematic; as if, clad in the armature of the state and striding purposefully though his own institutions, Cartesian ‘Man’ can continue to dictate to the planet. This attitude was exemplified by comments by the Indian environment minister after the 2014 Lima Accord, who praised it for providing developing countries ‘equitable carbon space to achieve sustainable development’ – as if this space can be delimited, as if there is any space left.

All this is disturbing enough. Yet climate change is only one facet of a cumulative ecological crisis grinding towards a cascade of terrifying and irreversible tipping points. Scientists have developed a ‘planetary boundaries’ model to predict when nine processes of ecosystem degradation (including biodiversity loss, chemical pollution, fresh water, and land use change) will exceed the earth system thresholds within which ‘humanity can exist safely’. Three of these boundaries – climate change, ocean acidification, and stratospheric ozone depletion – have already been crossed. Ocean acidification and other stressors are predicted to lead to the extinction of all marine fish species by 2048, with devastating effect on ocean ecologies and human food security. In other words, the world is halfway toward being unable to support life.

We face an ecological crisis, a political crisis, but even more fundamentally, a paradigm crisis; our paradigm is shattering before our eyes, but we are not sure what can or should replace it. I agree with Timothy Morten who writes in The Ecological Thought that the ecological crisis rips a vast ‘tear in the real’. This is the question that makes me write and lose sleep now.

To begin an answer: there needs to be an isomorphism between the planetary scale on which earth system science is producing knowledge about the earth, between the planetary scale of actual and potential extinctions, and between an ethical, moral and ontological discourse that might be adequate. Diplomacy, and international relations, imagines the world abstractly and anthropocentrically as interactions between states, rather than a complex meshing of human and nature, society and ecology, humanity and planet. The Anthropocene thus puts International Relations – as a global paradigm of knowledge and institutional practice – into profound question. International Relations is staring into the abyss of its own irrelevancy, but sees only itself in the mirror. International Relations is undone by the reality of the planet.

Cosmopolitanism – which asserts the fundamental unity and equality and dignity of humanity – is a natural move to try to move our political thought and practice into the planetary scale. It encourages us to respect and honour human diversity and coexistence at multiple scales – from the indigenous tribe to the globe as a whole – and to develop projects of governance, law and representation that grapple with phenomena that operate at the global scale. But cosmopolitanism is also limited and grossly underdeveloped. For this reason I have tried to transform cosmopolitan thought with insights from complexity theory and posthuman philosophy, and especially to change its model of coexistence and responsibility in three connected ways. I have done this in the fields of philosophy, international security, and international relations.

One of these ways is temporal: to understand our radical coexistence historically, to locate it in certain pasts, and to push an irreducible collective responsibility into an indefinite future. The second is ontological: to understand humanity as bound into nature and having to abandon its Cartesian hubris of control and separation, whilst accepting a much more intensified level of responsibility for the preservation and restoration of ecosystems and other species. The third is onto-ethical: we can no longer think in the terms Martha Nussbaum or Andrew Linklater do, of a ‘concentric circles’ model of cosmopolitan feeling in which allegiances and empathy move outwards from the individual through the family, the community, and the nation to humanity. There is too much (ethically reversible) choice and agency in this model, too much willed generosity; rather, our dependent, threatened and threatening coexistence is a fact that brings with it a demand. The planet is talking back. We cannot afford to match its indifference to us by perpetuating our own.

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