- A New Critical Climate
The environment today is replete with invisible, elusive, fearful, yet wholly “real” entities revealed to us by science: acid rain, ozone depletion, pesticide tolerance, carrying capacity, overpopulation, species loss and, most recently, climate change.—Sheila Jasanoff (2010, 235)
We all know about climate change. We know that it is happening, if only because scientific consensus (though not certainty) has been translated into and accepted as general consensus. We know this—we specialist and non-specialist consenters to this consensus—on the basis of an agglomerate of evidence, including measurements of rapidly rising sea levels, shrinking ice sheets, diminishing Arctic ice thickness, accelerating global temperatures on both land and sea, and increasing ocean acidification. We thus know about climate change as a cluster of scientific facts. These facts—what Bruno Latour would call the “things” of science—have arrived through several layers of mediation (1990; 25-26). We encounter climate change most often as news or popular science sound-bites, usually exegeses of information reported by a body such as the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), itself an attempt to collate and condense a vast amount of data from an array of scientific disciplines as reported in specialist journals. Those reported conclusions are themselves the subject of a considerable and convention-laden process: observation; experimentation; information gathering; statistical analysis; and interrogative (even combative) peer review. And so, simultaneously, we know and don’t know about climate change.
Climate change is invisible, suggests Sheila Jasanoff, as far as our feeling, talking, sensing, seeing selves are concerned, and yet it is real as far as our rational, knowing, scientific egos tell us. We encounter climate change as a discursive phenomenon and never a purely material one. Going further than Jasanoff, we should say that, in its discursive ubiquity and urgency (we all know about it, after all), it is unlike any thing we have encountered before. This is the impulse behind the naming of the Anthropocene and the [End Page 7] enshrining of its status as the sixth mass extinction event. We have never seen anything like this.
Or have we? Around the problem of climate change as thing—around this issue of its experiential elusiveness and its scientific factuality—a critical project is emerging. Sometimes called “critical climate change,” this project announces two important, seemingly conflicting questions.1 Does the radically unprecedented phenomenon of climate change herald a new critical climate, in which our collective theoretical and critical faculties, long used to carry out humanist cultural analysis, are rendered fit for purpose for an age of human and nonhuman catastrophe? Or, conversely, does climate change in and of itself evoke familiar lines of enquiry, as it so coincidentally and (one has to say) uncannily conjures up old habits of critique? In its simultaneous unknowability and ubiquity, climate change is something (or some thing) we have been describing in the annals of critical theory all along: an aporia, the Lacanian “real,” the postmodern unrepresentable, and so on. Thus, Timothy Clark is prompted to note wryly that, “if asked to respond to the challenge of an issue such as climate change never considered by Derrida, for many the reflex would be to argue, somehow, how well he had covered it already” (2010, 132). Always already, perhaps.
And yet, the two possibilities marked out by critical climate change are not necessarily contradictory. Clark is at pains to point out that the absence of environmental issues in Derrida’s writing, considered in the light of the odd appositeness of those issues to his mode of questioning, means that a “kind of invention” (2010, 132) of deconstruction is necessary if one is to bring it to bear on climate change. The critical project is therefore a reorientation, an application of existing theoretical protocols to a subject never yet attempted because never yet seen.
At one level, it is a matter of readjusting the strongly humanist tendencies of critical theory in order to interrogate the new fault lines of human and nonhuman interaction now being revealed (McKee 2011, 309-11). The effects of such a recalibration are discernible not just in terms of an environmental turn in critical theory...