Thinking COP21: Contradiction and Controversy in the Climate Crisis

Hilton Simmet | 30 November 2015 | Respond
Protestors calling for Harvard to divest from fossil-fuels during Heat Week, April 2015. Looking at moments of contestation in the climate crisis reveals much about the broader political, economic, and social terrains in which the alleged contradictions are embedded.

Protestors calling for Harvard to divest from fossil fuels during Heat Week, April 2015. Looking at moments of contestation in the climate crisis reveals much about the broader political, economic, and social terrains in which the alleged contradictions are embedded.

I also find a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies … Given our pervasive dependence on these companies for the energy to heat and light our buildings, to fuel our transportation, and to run our computers and appliances, it is hard for me to reconcile that reliance with a refusal to countenance any relationship with these companies through our investments.

–Harvard President Drew Faust, in response to calls for fossil-fuel divestment (1).

The climate controversy is rife with charges of contradiction. Student activists in the Divest Movement, aiming to get university money out of fossil-fuel extraction, are found by Harvard’s President Drew Faust to be “inconsistent” –boycotting the very companies on which the University and its students depend. Environmental economists are told by Pope Francis and the UK’s Schumacher Institute that it is a contradiction to rely on the very growth-based economic models that created the problem (2). And while developing countries hope for a new era of “sustainable development,” many note the contradiction between the energy-hungry symbols of development–industrial agriculture, superhighways, airports, and air-conditioners—and the imperatives of sustainability.

For the 195 nations meeting in Paris at COP21, if such contradictions get noticed at all, it will be only insofar as they get in the way of the conference’s more concrete and straightforward goals: to limit warming to less than 2◦C, reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by 40-70% of current levels by 2100, create strategies of adaptation, and establish a global carbon market to further a new “zero carbon” and “resilient” development model (3). Yet in looking for change, conferees may lose sight of how these persistent contradictions suggest the “climate crisis” needs more than environmental regulations and a new price on fuel. Indeed, for STS scholars what appear as contradictions are sites of analysis that reveal how individual moments of climate controversy are embedded in a far larger matrix of contestation over the very political, economic, and social worlds that produced climate change.

To begin, President Faust’s claim that her students are being “inconsistent” in refusing to “countenance any relationship” with the fossil-fuel companies that support them overlooks her own moments of contradiction. She ignores, for example, the more basic dependence her students are trying to point out between Earth, its stable climate, and themselves (4). An STS scholar might observe that the entire point of Divest is to acknowledge the problematic ways the interests of fossil-fuel companies, politics, and universities are wound up in one another. Divestment, for the activists, is precisely about severing the problematic political ties that are preventing law-makers from crafting effective climate policy.

In Faust’s world, too, Harvard ought not to make its investments a “political tool.” She problematically raises thick walls between Harvard as an “academic institution,” a place of “pure” learning and research, and the dirty business of earthly politics going on around it. In effect, through this discourse of purity, Harvard divests from its ethical responsibility to the Earth. Yet as decades of STS work point out, scientific research is already directed by the interests of the world around it, just as research is not always agnostic in directing the world—as when climate scientists rightfully stress the urgency to act on climate change. Thus, what seems at first to be a debate about the coherence of the Divest movement finally emerges as a contestation over the nature of Harvard and its political relationships with the world.

While Faust’s contradictions call us to think about COP21’s broader political contexts, the Pope’s point about the contradiction of looking for a “market solution” draws attention to the interdependence of fossil fuels and economics. In “Carbon Democracy” (2009), Timothy Mitchell argues that petroleum-based industrialization created societies “with a peculiar orientation toward the future … [as] a limitless horizon of growth” and that “the economy” that was helpful in governing the age of fossil fuels “may be unable to create the processes that ended it” (5). This recalls Max Weber’s observation over a century ago, that “the mighty cosmos of the modern economic order” rests on a desire to consume and drive growth forward “until the day that the last ton of fossil fuels has been consumed” (6). Both Mitchell and Weber argue that the very pillars of contemporary economics—growth, international trade, and increased consumption—arose with the burning of carbon, oil, and gas. While it is simplistic to dismiss markets tout court, the relationship between the conceptual development of economics and our reliance on these fuels is challenging. It cautions climate negotiators about relying on economic assumptions built for a fossil-fuel era when advocating the passing of that era itself.

Finally, there is the contradiction of “sustainable development,” a notion that uneasily marries the symbolic social order of “development” (electric power, highways, etc.) with that of “sustainability” (e.g., stable climate, untouched forests). In the pre-COP21 conference “Our Common Future Under Climate Change,” hope was expressed that there can be a “new development model (low to zero, carbon resilient)” that will also “limit risks that changes in the climate will derail human progress” (7). In this view, seemingly the only modification that needs to be made to “development” is to make it zero-carbon, an unsatisfying resolution in that it takes for granted what is meant by the term “human progress.” Calling for a “new development model” (singular) implies there do not exist multiple, overlapping, even conflicting, understandings of human progress. STS scholarship suggests to the contrary that what is meant by “sustainability” and “development” needs to be examined against the multiple social meanings of “progress,” and it questions whether a single, internationally certified definition of such terms could ever be achieved (8).

Looking at these moments of contestation in the climate crisis reveals much about the broader political, economic, and social terrains in which the alleged contradictions are embedded. Analyzing a message from Harvard’s President brings out the contested (and deeply political) nature of one local climate controversy. Pope Francis offers a compass point toward thinking about the layers of assumption on which contemporary industrial economies are built. And “sustainable development” suggests not so much a “new development model” as a new window on the very meaning of social progress. Looking to COP21, similar moments are sure to arise, challenging the ways we think and engage, and allowing us to see and reimagine the worlds in which such contradictions arise. Ultimately the promise of COP21 thus may not lie in a climate treaty but in the very possibility for meaning and change in this contested moment.

Keywords: COP21; climate change; contestation; development


  1. Drew Faust, “Fossil Fuel Divestment Statement,” Office of the President, October 3, 2013,
  2. Coral Davenport, “Pope Targets Carbon Credits, Economists Favored Path to Change,” New York Times, June 18, 2015,
  3. Andrew C. Revkin, “In Paris Scientists Chart Varied Paths to a Sustainable Human Relationship with Earth’s Climate,” New York Times Dot Earth, July 11, 2015,
  4. This interdependence has been observed by a number of scholars. See, for example, Latour, Bruno (2015) Face à Gaïa: Huit conférences sur le nouveau régime climatique. La Découverte (2015) and Stone, Christopher D. (2012) “Should trees have standing? Toward legal rights for natural objects.” Journal of Human Rights and the Environment, 3(0), 4–55.
  5. Mitchell, Timothy. (2009). “Carbon democracy.” Economy and Society, 38(3), 399–432. p. 422.
  6. Weber, Max. (2002[1905]). The Protestant ethic and the “spirit” of capitalism and other writings. New York: Penguin Books. p. 120-121.
  7. Revkin, Andrew C. “In Paris Scientists Chart Varied Paths to a Sustainable Human Relationship with Earth’s Climate,” New York Times Dot Earth, July 11, 2015,
  8. Jasanoff, Sheila. (2002). New modernities: Reimagining science, technology and development. Environmental Values, 11(3), 253–276.

Further Reading:

  • Jasanoff, Sheila. (2010). A New Climate for Society. Theory, Culture & Society, 27(2-3), 233-253.
  • Mitchell, Timothy. (2013). Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. London: Verso.

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