Heads of delegations at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference (Paris, France)

What is the Anthropocene's political potential?

While the Anthropocene is a well-established scientific category, what is its political potential?

Outside academic circles the Anthropocene is only beginning to enter public awareness. The circle of politicians familiar with the idea and its implications is broadening gradually. For Klaus Töpfer, former executive director of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), the Anthropocene is “essentially a socio-political category” because it has far-reaching implications for a societal transformation toward sustainability. What does the Anthropocene diagnose add to ongoing debates on global environmental governance? Is it more than a new word for the sum total of urgent sustainability issues?

Researchers in philosophy, political science, history, ecology, sustainability studies, and other disciplines provide different answers to these questions. Some influential thinkers — Sheila Jasanoff, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Bruno Latour — have expressed discomfort with the term and the idea of global environmental governance because the Anthropocene questions “the global” and “globalization” which are essentially socio-economic categories. Instead, they prefer other attributes, such as “planet(ary)”, “earth(ly)”, “gaia”, to describe the character and scale of future policies to control anthropogenic changes of the Earth System (The Planetary). Will acknowledging the Anthropos as a geophysical force lead to a new form of governance in the Anthropocene? To this point, no other aspect of the Anthropocene has been nearly as politicized as anthropogenic climate change. Since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was founded in 1988, more than thirty years of climate change governance have passed. They have led to mixed experiences with regard to mechanisms that were implemented to control greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the failure of emission trading schemes has left us with serious doubts about the effectiveness of carbon pricing ideas that were born back in the 1990s, the heyday of neoliberalism.

The struggles over an international agreement on binding emission reductions for each member state of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) were even more disillusioning. The Paris Agreement of 2015 was reached only because defining the amount of emission reductions was left to each nation state. It is uncertain if the sum of these Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) will suffice to limit global warming at +1.5-2.0° C above pre-industrial levels. Another important question is: How will the current political atmosphere influence future planetary governance in the Anthropocene? The recent political shift from anti-globalism to right-wing nationalism in many countries, including some Western democracies with long-standing anti-authoritarian traditions, nourishes concerns that global political cooperation has entered a period of crisis. Will planetary governance in the Anthropocene merely be hampered by these developments? Or will the pressures of dangerous Earth System change push international affairs back towards more, and more effective, cooperation?

Franz Mauelshagen


Researchers: Ulrich Brand, Anna Echterhölter, Ulrike Felt, Alice Vadrot

Further Reading