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It Comes Down to Activists and Accountants

23rd June 2023

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Blog Post by Naveeda Khan, author of In Quest of a Shared Planet: Negotiating Climate from the Global South

On May 17, 7 pm, Red Emma’s Bookstore, a worker-owned bookstore that calls itself a “radical infoshop,” hosted a discussion of my new book In Quest of a Shared Planet: Negotiating Climate from the Global South published by Fordham University Press.  It was structured as a conversation between a young Baltimore based activist, Meg Chow, a biomedical engineer by training, who is a member of the Baltimore chapter of Extinction Rebellion and who also organizes with Speak Out Now, a revolutionary socialist organization, and me, an associate professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins studying climate at all different scales for the past decade or so.  Among the many topics we discussed, we homed in on what she found of interest in my book, an ethnography of the sprawling UN sponsored global climate negotiations from the perspective of small developing countries, and how it can be related to more local scales, such as the organizing work that Meg does with workers, community members and environmental activists at Curtis Bay, a neighborhood in Baltimore zoned as residential, commercial and industrial with the host of environmental and health problems that such promiscuous zoning produces. 

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For my part, what I wanted to do in my book was to give a description adequate to the complexity of a technical process that advances through policy making and implementation, as such processes are now dominant in our societies, evident at all scales from local government to refugee resettlement.  This technical process that culminates in the annual Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been more in the background than other international ones on development, trade, security, etc.  But it has had a global impact apparent in the fact that the phrase “climate change,” meaning anthropogenic changes accelerated by industrialization once espoused only by scientists and a few policy wonks, has come to be widely accepted as naming an actual phenomenon destructive of life worlds.  The global climate regime, as the process is often called, has also produced other important discursive and epistemological shifts, such as rendering carbon emissions into a problem, establishing mitigation and adaptation as important pillars of climate action, attempting to bring resource redistribution within the scope of this process through discussions on finance, capacity building, and technology transfer, raising issues of equity and justice, and so on.  It has disseminated considerable knowledge, from the scientific to the technical, to produce expertise that reaches beyond the usual technocratic elites of nation states to encompass a wider range of civil societies, including indigenous communities and the youth. 

At the same time, the process still disappoints for the incredibly slow pace of progress, for not yet having arrived at more meaningful and immediate means by which to deal with the fast-accelerating pace of climate change.  It shows the nations of the world to be entirely driven by self-interest and economic competition such that it takes every country committing to bookkeeping in the same way on carbon emissions to keep faith in the process.  It should not surprise then that the latecomer to the field of climate action is loss and damage, which has accounting of such losses and damages at its heart as a prod to bookkeeping practices on carbon emissions.

The book is also very interested in what happens in the shadows of the process, in the hallways and corners, and outside its gates.  It locates activists in such spaces keeping an eye on negotiations to keep them accountable, community representatives seeking to unveil the suffering already underway the world over, academics attempting to provide some iota of reflexivity to the process, and many others pursuing all manners of dreams, opportunities, and dead ends.     

For her part Meg Chow was fascinated with the insights that the book gave on the power dynamics that keep the world in a state of inaction with respect to climate change.  She pointed to the fact that while the UN global climate negotiations may feel very distant from the struggles of the denizens of Curtis Bay to reduce the impact of coal pollution on their communities, she learned how processes such as the one I described delivers up life worlds in determinate and structured ways that does not allow, much less foster individual choices.  It didn’t take a leap of the imagination for us to understand that climate policies would not be germinated but would arrive from on high to such communities if they arrived at all.  Instead, Meg threw in her lot with caring and organizing such that people in the communities wouldn’t only be better informed and involved in the decisions being made on their behalf by their local governments, business interests, etc., but that they would have the chance to voice and maybe to realize their own ideas of what is good for them. 

Two uses of linking the global scale of the UN to that of local communities came into sharp view for me through our conversation.  One was the useful reminder that the global was as thoroughly political as the local.  Thus, instead of getting disappointed that countries didn’t just harmonize to get the job done of solving climate, we should realize that they did politics every step of the way, a large part of which was to equivocate.  We need to study this politics as much as we do that of national and local governments to explore the places of possible intervention and inflection or to know whether to resist or reject what it offers.  To be kind to the discipline of political science, I want to think that maybe this is what the best of it has always been urging.  Second, the two scales need to be held together, maybe as two contrasting ones at first but towards eventually seeing the possible lines of connection or folds between them.  This kind of seeing, an ecological one of seeing interconnections, is very much part of the new political practices that we need to inculcate for our fast-changing present. 

When walking back from the event with a student, he commented to me, “Well, it seems to come down to activists and accountants.”  Yes, my book may show that, but it aspires to put these figures in relation to “care” and “communities”, two concepts enlivened for us by Meg Chow’s way of doing politics. 

Dr. Naveeda Khan

Naveeda Khan is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. She sits on the board of the JHU Center for Islamic Studies and serves as affiliate faculty for the JHU Undergraduate Program in Environmental Science and Studies. She is the author of Muslim Becoming: Aspiration and Skepticism in Pakistan (Duke, 2012) and River Life and the Upspring of Nature (Duke, 2023) and editor of Beyond Crisis: Re-evaluating Pakistan (Routledge, 2010).

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