Climate Change and Cosmopolitanism

By Monish Verma

Ulrich Beck, a late German sociologist, posed a deep question about the representation of climate change and the predicaments that it finds itself in: “Why is there no storming of the Bastille because of the environment destruction threatening mankind, why no Red October of ecology?  Why have the most pressing issues of our time – climate change and ecological crisis – not been met with the same enthusiasm, energy, optimism, ideals and forward-looking democratic spirit as the past tragedies of poverty, tyranny and war?” [1]. My approach in this article is to unpack the knowledge buried within Beck’s seven theses and to qualify the critical issue that the Indian subcontinent has been facing – How to develop the Himalayas sustainably?

First Thesis: The discourse on climate politics so far is an expert discourse in which citizens and their interests are often neglected. The thesis illustrates well how climate change creates the new climate elite while prescribing a general cure without considering the complex realities to develop the Himalayas. To turn climate change politics from its head onto its feet, you have to take sociology into account. Actions at the country or local level alone will not do. Only sustained collective actions at multiple levels combined with specific interventions will bring about the required changes. At present, only recycled recipes concocted for the great plains are shaping the mountains. This mis-design mirrors the top-down climate governance mechanism that has evolved in the last decades and is in a sense an “imperialistic structure” where the decision-making process and its consequences are attributed to different groups.

Beck’s Second Thesis calls for a scientific revolution from nationalism to cosmopolitanism where solidarity across boundaries becomes real. Each level of the governance structure has an inbuilt “methodological nationalism” which has to be transformed to go beyond a zero-sum game to create a bottom-up greening of development. This is mirrored in the relations between the center (Plains) and periphery (Himalayas) and by the challenges posed by climate change where all three domains – nature, society, and politics – must come together. In the Himalayas, the actual existing unit for sustainable change can only be the urban jungles of a city, where it is still possible to reconcile the needs of modernizing society with the green transformation that climate change requires.

Beck’s Third Thesis discusses how climate change globalizes and increases social inequities across international, national and sub-national contexts. This trend points to a crux of the riddle that climate policy seeks to address. The more the periphery tries to ape the center, the more it resembles it in terms of the consumption-focused and desire-seeking civilization that has been internalized across the world particularly since the end of the cold-war. In the Himalayas, this dynamic is not only inherent to the human-nature dynamics but is also forced by the schemes of national development which use recipes to concoct the Indian modernity – A power with a persisting caste-ridden society that is unable to clean the streets but mops dust from every nook and cranny in their home.

In the Fourth and Fifth Theses, Beck makes a case for translating the cosmopolitan imperative – cooperate or fail – into the green imperative as all of us (rich and poor alike) are impacted equally by the degradation of the planet. This predicament – being in the same boat – cannot be solved at national level but by reinventing the greening imperative through cosmopolitan cooperation. That is, to find answers to climate change, we should look not only to the United Nations, but also to the United Cities. In the Indian context, cities are normally defined in opposition to nature and have undoubtedly had a catastrophic impact on the countryside on which the city literally feeds on. However, as the nation-states’ legitimacy erodes, cities become more relevant again. I have already made a case for looking at cities in the Himalayas as the only vehicle for sustainable development. Beck’s argument adds legitimacy to the idea of the city as the ideal agent for transforming or greening modernity.

Beck’s Sixth and Seventh Theses are that climate change related risks come as threat but also bring hope. However, this is literally not as apocalyptic as the activists’ imagination and the media’s distorted lens can do. Global risk has two sides: the traumatic vulnerability of all and the resulting responsibility for all. It forces us to remind ourselves of the ways in which humans jeopardize their own existence. Global risk does not equal global catastrophe but 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 and redefine what strategic self-interest means in a cosmopolitan society.

This is well illustrated by Beck’s thought experiment on Blaise Pascal’s 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 difficult to determine if a natural catastrophe is the mere consequence of man-made climate change. This uncertainty creates a critical political moment of decision. If one accepts that climate change is real, one must work towards effective political change. As in Pascal’s case, there are good, practical reasons for climate change deniers to accept that it is real. Climate change may change the world for the better.

Answering the questions posed at the beginning of the article seems simple – climate change is a call for the transformation of polity, technology and cooperation at multiple scales. But one has to be careful not to simply wait for global salvation but we must actively re-make our prospects step-by-step, layer-by-layer, and of course day-by-day.


Monish Verma has been working for more than 20 years in the field of international development. He is currently Managing Director at InCircle Innovations P Ltd and lives in New Delhi. You can get in touch with him here and read a more in-depth analysis of Beck’s theses here.

The Shameful Living Conditions of the Aegean Refugees

Gender in a Globalized World