The prey of uncertainty: Climate change as opportunity: Jerome Whitington


In this article I describe the post-Copenhagen moment in carbon markets and climate politics as one characterised by deep uncertainty. Uncertainty describes the social experience of emerging climate policy, but it is also business strategy. Uncertainty is necessary for markets to function. To understand this, I look toward practices of capitalism, which produce the future as indeterminate. Uncertainty is generated by business practices of treating conventions – rules and institutions, but also social conventions such as people’s ‘green’ expectations – in terms of their material opportunities. Treating conventions as always open to negotiation requires an ambitious or speculative ethos. Rather than projecting a stable vision of reality, nature or truth, these practitioners constantly ask, what can we do with these possibilities? I project that the near future will involve a proliferation of low-value, nontransparent carbon markets without any binding global cap on emissions.


The establishment of global carbon markets by regulatory fiat would mark the triumph of financial hegemony over the politics of climate change risk. Climate finance practitioners have first multiplied in numbers in the speculative lead-up to Copenhagen’s COP15 and then spectacularly retreated to the wings to wait again for the signs of easy short-term profit, an ebb and flow marking new high tide for what Christian Marazzi (2010) has called the ‘violence of financial capitalism’. Even so, the theme for 2010 was how carbon markets might still be a basis for accumulation in the absence of a global market organised around a comprehensive UN agreement.

It has become apparent that a major effect of the United States’ re-engagement with the UN process has been to radically disorganise the agenda established under the Bali road map in 2007. The acknowledgement of the Copenhagen Accord by the conference of parties in 2009 served to substantiate the parallel, non-UN negotiating process organised around the Major Economies Forum in which the US holds a much better negotiating position. By the end of the UN meetings in Cancún in 2010, major elements of the US approach to negotiating a weak agreement had been incorporated in the agreed-upon text, and the extension of Kyoto after 2012 had been nearly killed through the work of Canada, Japan and Russia. As Martin Khor (2011) of the South Centre has put it, ‘we now see quite unbelievably an attempt to dismantle even the weaker regime that we now have’. Perhaps most importantly, Kyoto’s organising force as a binding legal agreement based on common but differentiated responsibilities – ultimately on the historical liability of industrialised countries – has been jettisoned.

The increasingly significant language of a bottom-up process, of a politically binding versus legally binding agreement, or of plural institutions signifies to carbon market makers that they cannot simply expect the world’s governments to hand them a global market, ready-made as it were, as the basis for a coherent plan to deal with climate change. Put differently, their ability to define climate policy for their own ends had been called into question.

The disappointment is aptly demonstrated by Richard Sandor, who has sold his stakes in three climate exchanges for about $600 million, as ClimateWire reports, ‘in light of the roller-coaster ride that now defines climate politics and carbon markets’ (Kirkland, 2010). But disappointment at the rise of ‘regulatory uncertainty’ masks – or perhaps mimics – a deeper problematic of uncertainty at the heart of market mechanisms invoked to confront climate change. Sandor has been a speculator of the first order who staked his own fortunes on carbon market ambition. Moreover, persistent questions about the integrity of Sandor’s approach dogged especially his now-defunct Chicago Climate Exchange. I want to foreground the role of uncertainty in these diverse configurations – ambition, speculation, integrity. These multiple, overlapping modes of uncertainty interact with and compound each other at the heart of the financialisation of climate change, which hinges on volatility and systemic play.

This ‘roller-coaster ride’ of climate politics and carbon markets demands attention, but not only because carbon markets pose a tremendous number of problems for which there may not be any solutions. Sandor notwithstanding, the view from anthropology helps to demonstrate that uncertainty is more than a set of problems needing to be fixed. There are important lessons to be learned for wagering the future of the planet on the promises and practices of speculation. Uncertainty is at the basis of the market perspective itself, especially in its understanding of ‘nature’ as always open to manipulation. Marilyn Strathern (1992: 142) argues that a transformation of Euro- American views of nature has accompanied late capitalism by calling attention to the rise of England’s ambitious ‘plasti-class’, for whom everything is open to negotiation.1 If, through carbon markets, the atmosphere is becoming an object of management, then this must be understood in terms of the production of uncertainty as a matter of climate opportunism. Following an earlier formulation of Strathern’s, I argue that market ambition relies on a manner of treating rules as artifacts, that is, as ‘things’ that can be worked on, manipulated or ‘followed’ in the sense of following an opportunity rather than fulfilling a requirement. The rules in question are the rules of carbon market policy, including accounting provisions, which become media for new market relations.

The opportunism of putting diverse relationships to work – including market relationships meant to do the work of regulating the climate – makes a future that is indeterminate.

The financial community, in the wake of the Copenhagen agreement, has begun to reassess its own expectations. ‘Right now the word is uncertainty’, a senior manager at one of the world’s largest banks recently told a workshop of about 40 climate change and finance experts.2 In spite of a wealth of diverse concerns at this meeting of minds in Washington, DC, his argument for the day was to take to task the inability of regulators to provide the conditions in which market necessities would define climate policy. ‘What little forward curve there is beyond 2012 has no liquidity because of regulatory uncertainty’, he insisted. It is insufficient to view this statement only as a statement of fact. It is a speech act in the sense that it is vocalised from a specific perspective in order to achieve certain objectives. It resonates with disappointment, optimism, and ambition, each of which marks this man’s relation to the uncertainties he faces as a market actor. In the act, it attempts to define climate change as a problem in terms of the needs of markets. It is a gamble. Not everyone present buys it. Hence, not only does he speak of uncertainty, but his voice also resonates with uncertainty: nobody knows what will happen after 2012. Copenhagen was a failure from our perspective. We are pressuring regulators to come to a decision. We cannot invest until they do, but we do not know if they are able to.

By way of contrast, those who champion climate justice as the basis for a climate agreement often have little patience with the demand for ‘incentivising’ polluters’ actions through market mechanisms. A precise logic characterises climate justice demands presented at The World People’s Conference of Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in April, 2010, in Cochabamba, Bolivia (see also Bond and Dorsey, 2010). ‘This needs not be confusing’, writes one activist. ‘It is simple…50% emission cuts by developed countries – 1990 baseline – No offsets – 1C – 300ppm’. More than a moral position, the logical clarity of many radical demands presents not a politics of risk but a politics of necessity augmented by remarkable demands for new programs of inclusive global democracy. As Anitra Nelson (2010) argues, such claims demonstrate the institutional weakness through which the climate crisis continues to unfold. Global institutions that could constrain polluters do not yet exist. By fiat, the largest polluters have the greatest say in negotiations – as in so many things – while they insist as their prerogative that a host of other political priorities should take precedence.

There is a saturation point concerning uncertainty and climate change. Beyond attempts to deliberately create confusion by undermining climate science, the scientific problem of climate change is almost exclusively a matter of anticipating an uncertain future.

While scientists have done a remarkable job in radically reducing uncertainties in our understanding of climatic processes, for policy purposes climate models are only models (Edwards, 2010). They are not representations of the future; yet, they still allow decision-making in the present. Action takes place in the ambiguity of anticipation. Yet, like corporate sustainability claims, scenarios are too often taken as matters-of-fact. Climate change focuses geopolitical anxieties surrounding military, population and energy scenarios with much higher degrees of uncertainty than atmospheric models. Knowing that things will change, but not knowing how they will change, requires a speculative attitude, but this attitude is itself dangerous.

At the same time, uncertainty goes to the heart of carbon market mechanisms, which differ from carbon taxes, for instance, because they invite speculative anticipation of the future. Moreover, carbon markets are highly dependent on optimising uncertainty in determining the stringency of the carbon cap, how permits are distributed and how carbon is quantified and monetised, each of which has proven extremely difficult in practice (MacKenzie, 2010; Callon, 2009; Lovell and MacKenzie, 2011). When, finally, the basic principles of the UN negotiations were undermined by the Copenhagen Accord, the saturation point seemed to be reached, and all of its ‘hope’ appeared retrospectively as so much misplaced expectation. In fact, expectation, like climate science or regulatory enforcement, is easily manipulated. The attempt to plan the climate’s future for now has failed. Subsidiary uncertainties proliferate from there.

This paper proceeds in two respects. First, I examine several loci of uncertainty that defined debates at the interface of climate and commercial intervention in the wake of Copenhagen’s COP15 in December 2009. Each locus demonstrates the interconnectedness of diverse ‘uncertain variables’ (Whitington, 2008). For instance, investment in renewable energy technology, on the one hand, depends on carbon market speculation, but not in the way coal-powered utilities think it does. On the other hand, it raises the spectre of geopolitical energy security, which in turn points to problems of military climate anticipation. In the second part, I examine expectations market makers have of climate policy makers as a way to characterise the state of carbon markets after the demise of a program to establish a single global market based on a legally-binding cap on global emissions. Understandably, my objective is not to thoroughly analyse each source or locus of uncertainty but to demonstrate uncertain interconnections from the perspectives of the actors themselves working at a particular moment in climate politics. Reciprocally, the basis for the analysis I present is itself always uncertain. Too often, in trying to understand what is happening, we are left to rely on statements that are very hard to interpret in a straightforward manner. In socio-technical systems (Barry 2001), uncertainty is what is left when facts cannot be taken at face value and system integrity is a constant unknown. Increasingly we find highly articulated strategies for working with uncertainty in practice, rather than simply trying to control it at all costs. Actors I describe are grappling with situations they poorly understand, and the play of uncertainty constitutes their sociological experience. Rather than attempt to eradicate interpretive uncertainty or establish factual reliability at all costs, I try to capture the ambiguities actors themselves are faced with.

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