How Climate Change Might Save the World: Metamorphosis

Ulrich Beck

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39: Wet Matter


Climate change is one of the most pressing issues faced by people and governments across the globe. Does it have the potential to alter the political order of the world? My answer is yes, it does—but in ways different from what we might expect. I have seven theses on how climate change is changing the world.

First Thesis

Until now, discussions on climate change have focused on whether or not it is really happening, and if it is, what we can do to stop, contain, or solve it. But this emphasis on solutions blinds us to the fact that climate change has already altered our “being” in the world—the way we think about the world and engage in politics.

Three facts illustrate this thesis:

• Rising sea levels are creating changing landscapes of inequality—drawing new world maps whose key lines are not traditional boundaries between nation-states and social classes, but elevations above sea or river. This is a totally different way of conceptualizing the world and our chances of survival within it.

• Climate change produces a basic sense of ethical and existential violation that creates new norms, laws, markets, technologies, understandings of the nation and the state, urban forms, and international cooperations.

• If we consider how the issue of climate change fits into the current perspective in politics and the social sciences, we can see the limitations of what I call “methodological nationalism.” We frame almost every issue, whether it relates to class, conflict, or politics, in the context of nation-states organized within the international sphere. But when we look at the world from the perspective of climate change, this framing doesn’t fit. A new power structure is embedded within the logic of global climate risk. When we talk about risk, we have to relate it to decision making and decision makers, and we have to make a fundamental distinction between those who generate risk and those who are affected by it. In the case of climate change, these groups are completely different. Those who make decisions are not accountable from the perspective of those affected by risks, and those affected have no real way of participating in the decision-making process. It’s an imperialistic structure; the decision-making process and its consequences are attributed to completely different groups.

We can only observe this structure when we step outside of a nation-state perspective and take what I call a “cosmopolitan perspective,” where the unit of research is a community of risk that includes what is excluded in the national perspective: the decision makers and the consequences of their decisions for others across space and time.

Second Thesis

I call it Verwandlung, or, in English, “metamorphosis.” Metamorphosis is not evolution, not reform, not revolution, not transformation, not crisis. It signifies a different mode of change and a different mode of existence. And it calls for a scientific revolution (Thomas Kuhn) from methodological nationalism to methodological cosmopolitanism in the social sciences.

The concept of metamorphosis embodies the power of change toward cosmopolitan horizons of normative expectations. Metamorphosis differs from the more commonly used concept of transformation. Transformation lacks the specificity of metamorphosis—the major change into something different, the replacement of one frame of reference with another. Transformation theory is occupied territory; it implies associations—post-socialism, teleology, and unilinearity—which are all counterproductive here. Therefore I have chosen the term “metamorphosis,” applying its conceptual content and associations from literature, biology, and art productively within the social sciences.

Climate change is creating existential moments of decision. This is unintended, unseen, unwanted, and is neither goal oriented nor ideologically driven. The literature on climate change has become a supermarket for apocalyptic scenarios. Instead, the focus should be on what is now emerging—future structures, norms, and new beginnings.

Metamorphosis is about a new way of generating and implementing norms in the age of climate change. A brief look at the history of world risk society illustrates this concept. Before Hiroshima happened, no one understood the power of nuclear weapons; but afterward, the sense of violation created a strong normative and political momentum: “Never again Hiroshima!” Violations of human existence like Hiroshima induce anthropological shocks and social catharsis, challenging and changing the order of things from within.

“Never again Holocaust!” This metamorphosis decouples our normative horizons from existing norms and laws. I am referring here to something profound. A former basic principle of national law was that an act could not be judged in hindsight against a law that did not exist at the time the act was committed. So while it was legal under Nazi law to kill Jews, it became, in hindsight, a crime against humanity. It was not simply a law that changed, but our social horizons—our very being in the world. This is exactly what I mean by metamorphosis. In the case of climate change as a moment of metamorphosis, nature, society, and politics coalesce.

Given the reality of cosmopolitanization, the rebirth of the national outlook is paradoxical. It is the national outlook in public and academic discourse that blinds us to the alternatives for climate change action that we see from a cosmopolitan point of view.

Third Thesis

“Class” is too soft a category to capture the political explosiveness of socio-material inequalities in the age of climate change.

National class society is based on the distribution of goods (income, education, good health, prosperity, social welfare, large-scale national movements like unions). World risk society, on the other hand, is based on the distribution of bads (climate risk, financial risk, nuclear radiation), which are confined by neither time nor territorial borders.

To clarify my view of the metamorphosis of social inequalities in the age of climate change, it is useful to consider other conceptualizations of social inequalities at the beginning of the 21st century. These positions can be distinguished according to the extent to which they accord central importance to (1) the reproduction or (2) the transformation of social classes with regard to (3) the distribution of goods without bads or (4) the distribution of goods and bads. The most interesting—and the most dominant—group here is the one that concentrates on goods without bads, and thereby focuses on the reproduction of class throughout the history of the 20th, and maybe the 21st centuries. As such, it keeps practicing the conventional sociology of class, ignoring empirical realities—ignoring the social explosiveness of global financial risks, climate risks, flooding risks, or nuclear risks that constitutes the very metamorphosis of social inequality.

The shift in perspective in class analysis that I am suggesting is profound. Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Pierre Bourdieu all focused on the production and distribution of goods without bads. They did not theorize risk as an explicit and systematic object of production and distribution. Marx focused on the relation of exploitation; Weber focused on the relationship between power, market, and change; and Bourdieu was aware of the role of economic and social risks in life, but nevertheless focused on different forms of capital, stressing the continuity of class relations over time.

In order to theorize and research the metamorphosis and radicalization of social inequalities in risk society, I introduce two concepts: the “anthropocene class,” focusing on the ocean as anticipated catastrophe that produces all kinds of inequality, and the “risk class,” which sheds light on the intersection of risk positions and class positions.

Both the epistemological monopoly of class analysis on the diagnosis of social inequality and the methodological nationalism of the sociology of class have contributed to the fact that established sociology is empty-handed, practically blind, and disoriented in the face of the radicalized, transnational, risk-class society power shifts and equality conflicts that we witness today.

There are transfigurations of world power structures in which the victims of climate change are repositioned. Although they are victims, and might remain victims with further deteriorating situations, they are also, due to the metamorphosis of social horizons, inevitable reminders on the global map of cosmopolitan responsibility. They might not be visible through a national frame, but they are there.

Fourth Thesis

We are undergoing a metamorphosis of the landscape of global actors through which nation-states are becoming cosmopolitanized.

On the one hand, nation-states are realizing that there are no national answers to global problems, even facilitating networks of global cities as cosmopolitan actors. On the other hand, national institutions are still subject to and products of the imagination of sovereignty.

Normative cosmopolitan expectations thus produce both cosmopolitan nations and renationalizing nations. Renationalizing nation-states are paralyzing cosmopolitan cooperation; international conferences fail. In the context of renationalizing states, the world city is becoming the main cosmopolitan actor, working in cooperation with NGOs and civil society movements. This represents an increase of power and action possibilities for world cities in relation to capital, lawmaking, and so on.

So to find answers to climate change, we should look not only to the United Nations, but also to the United Cities.

Fifth Thesis

World cities are rising as cosmopolitan actors.

Social movements are important for setting the cosmopolitan frame, but they do not create collectively binding decisions. For this, there is the nation-state, with its monopoly on lawmaking. But the influence of the nation-state is eroding. World cities are becoming a more important space for setting collectively binding decisions. Why? In the city, climate change produces visible effects; climate change incentivizes innovation; cooperation and competition transgress borders; and political response to climate change serves as a local resource for political legitimation and power.

A new power structure is emerging; it is composed of urban professionals in world cities—urban transnational classes with varying historical backgrounds. Cities are being legally redefined as transnational actors, organized voices of transnational politics. Even Zurich is a mini-New York; it is not one, but many world cities in one, with a strong red-green coalition urban government, and few chances for conservatives to regain power. There are also basic contradictions. Urbanization used to be defined in opposition to nature. Nowadays, it is the other way around: “green urbanism” is everywhere; “sustainability” has become normalized. Everything is now about greening. But these kinds of deconstructions are legitimizing the new normative horizon of cosmopolitan expectation. World cities are creating a new world of inclusiveness, where the potential to transform the law is growing. Making this new potential visible is what my theory of metamorphosis is all about.

In world risk society, global cities might reclaim a central role, similar to the position they occupied in the pre-national world. Humankind began its adventure in politics in the polis—the city. The city was democracy’s pioneer. But for millennia, cities relied on monarchy and empire and then on newly invented nation-states to produce and reproduce social and political order. Today, the nation-state is failing to properly address global risks. Cities, historically the social ground for civic movements, might in today’s cosmopolitanized world of global threats once again become democracy’s best hope.

Sixth Thesis

Global risk comes as threat and brings hope.

Global risk is not global catastrophe. It is the anticipation of catastrophe. It implies that it is high time for us to act—to drag people out of their routines, pull politicians from the “constraints” that allegedly surround them. Global risk is the day-to-day sense of insecurity that we no longer can accept. It opens our eyes and raises our hopes. This encouragement is its paradox. There is a certain affinity between the theory of Weltrisikogesellschaft and Ernst Bloch’s principle of hope. Weltrisikogesellschaft is always a political category; it creates new kinds and lines of conflict and liberates politics from existing rules and institutional shackles.

This again is what I mean by metamorphosis. Climate change might in fact be used as an antidote to war. We are undergoing a transition from the threats emanating from the logic of war to those arising from the logic of global risk. In the case of war, we find rearmament, resistance to enemies or their subjugation; in the case of risk, we see cross-border conflicts, but also cross-border cooperation to avert catastrophe—this is what I refer to as cosmopolitization. Thus life and survival within the horizon of global risk follow a logic that is diametrically opposed to war. In this situation it is rational to overcome the us-them opposition and to acknowledge the other as a partner, rather than as an enemy to be destroyed. The logic of risk directs its gaze toward the explosion of plurality in the world, which the friend-foe gaze denies. Weltrisikogesellschaft opens up a moral space that might (though by no means necessarily will) give birth to a civil culture of responsibility that transcends old antagonisms and creates new alliances as well as new lines of conflict.

Global risk has two sides: the traumatic vulnerability of all, and the resulting responsibility for all, including one’s own survival. It forces us to remind ourselves of the ways in which the human race jeopardizes its own existence. Consciousness of humanity thus acts as a fixed point. The risk of climate change generates a Umwertung aller Werte (Friedrich Nietzsche), a transvaluation of values, turning the system of value orientation upside-down—from postmodern cultural relativism to a historical new fixed star by which to mobilize solidarities and actions. This is the case because global climate risk contains a sort of navigation system in the otherwise storm-tossed seas of cultural relativism.

Whoever speaks of humankind is not cheating (as Pierre- Joseph Proudhon and Carl Schmitt put it), but is forced to save others in order to save him- or herself. In Weltrisikogesellschaft, cooperation between foes is not about self-sacrifice, but about self-interest, self-survival. It is a kind of egoistic cosmopolitanism or cosmopolitan egoism. We have to distinguish between a neoliberal form of self-interest and the self-interest of humanity.

But metamorphosis is not a direct line to a cosmopolitan future, in a normative political sense. In fact, the opposite is the case: metamorphosis is highly ambivalent. While victims of climate change such as small island states are being repositioned on the global map, there might still be new imperialistic orders emerging. The danger of “climate colonialism” is very real.

We have to take a cosmopolitan outlook to make these vulnerable situations visible, tangible, and ask what consequences for thought and action they have in the West. How can we give them a voice in “our” political processes? This would indeed require a redefinition of national interest.

Seventh Thesis

Let’s make a thought experiment. Climate change skepticism can be a strong position. What then is the counterargument? My counterargument refers to the French philosopher Blaise Pascal and his pragmatic “proof” of God. Pascal argued: Either God exists or does not—I don’t know. But I have to choose God, because if God exists, I win; if he doesn’t, I don’t lose anything.

Let’s compare the belief in God with the belief in man-made climate change. Like Pascal, we do not know if climate change is “real.” Despite substantial evidence, a basic uncertainty remains. We need to accept that it is impossible to know if a natural catastrophe is actually the consequence of man-made climate change. This uncertainty creates a critical political moment of decision.

There are two scenarios. First, we deny climate change, which would mean that every catastrophe highlights the irresponsibility of deniers. Second, we accept that climate change is real, take responsibility, and confront the overwhelming scale of necessary moral and political change. As in Pascal’s case, there are good, practical reasons, even for climate change deniers, to accept that it is real. Climate change may change the world for the better.

Seen as a global risk to all civilization, climate change could be made into an antidote to war. It induces the necessity to overcome neoliberalism, to perceive and to practice new forms of transnational responsibility; it puts the problem of cosmopolitan justice on the agenda of international politics; it creates informal and formal cooperation patterns between countries and governments that otherwise ignore each other or even consider themselves enemies. It makes economic and public actors accountable and responsible—even those who do not want to be accountable and responsible. It opens up new world markets, new innovation patterns, and the consequence is: deniers are losers. It changes lifestyles and consumption patterns; it reveals a strong source of future-oriented meanings, in everyday life and for legitimation of political action (reforms or even revolutions). Finally, it induces new forms of understanding and caring for nature. All of this happens under the surface of the mantra of disappointments and disillusionments at the Wanderzirkus of one climate conference after another.

From this perspective, climate change means first the metamorphosis of politics and society that has to be discovered and closely analyzed through the social science of methodological cosmopolitanism. This is not to say that there is an easy solution to climate change. Nor is it to say that the side effects of side effects automatically create a better world. And it is not even to say that the active, sub-political and political metamorphosis is fast enough to counter the galloping process of climate catastrophes that might throw the entire planet into droughts, floods, chaos, starvation, and bloody conflicts. But ultimately, catastrophe, too, would be a metamorphosis—the worst mode of metamorphosis.

Ulrich Beck is Professor of Sociology at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the London School of Economics, and Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme, Paris. He is also principal investigator of the European Research Council project “Methodological Cosmopolitanism—In the Laboratory of Climate Change.” He has authored or edited more than 45 books, including Distant Love (with Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, 2014), German Europe (2013), and World at Risk (2009).