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Talking Policy: Geoffrey Mann on the ‘Climate Leviathan’

Climate change threatens to transform not just the environment, but also the entire global order. In their upcoming book, Climate Leviathan, Geoffrey Mann and Joel Wainwright explore how efforts to avoid environmental catastrophe will reshape geopolitics, and with it the very foundation of state sovereignty. World Policy Journal speaks with Mann, the director if the Centre for the Global Political Economy at Simon Fraser University, to talk about the possible ways the world could tackle the challenge of climate change.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Leviathan, commonly referred to in Hebrew scripture as a great sea monster, is commonly used as a metaphor for a powerful state. In your upcoming book, Climate Leviathan, how do you define Leviathan? What does such a structure look like?

GEOFFREY MANN: We were inspired by Thomas Hobbes and his work in the 1600s. In his book, Leviathan, he wrote about his desperate aim to posit a way of organizing political life that would stop civil war and make it impossible. He saw civil war as the ultimate disaster and so the state, as he drew it up, was the mechanism by which civil society could be organized to avoid civil war. Hobbes wrote Leviathan not to describe what existed but to propose the possibility of an emergent order. That's the metaphor we are drawing on.

We see an emergent "Climate Leviathan" in the planetary order as a desperate attempt to avoid the disastrous consequences of catastrophic climate change. It is unstable by its nature because of its planetary scale and international authority. It is not necessarily nested in one institution or one person; it could be a complex of institutions just like Hobbes described—one that arrogates the sovereign authority to act in the interest of the planet, in the interest of life on earth.

We see it emergent not only in the form of environmentalists' desires for the success of the Copenhagen or Paris Agreements, but the wish to institute a global authority that will force us into line. That is the order that we see as imminent in our global climate governance discussion.

WPJ: How would you compare this emergent order to something like the United Nations, which some consider a superagency?

GM: I don't think that, institutionally I can say what form this superagency, as you call it, might take. It could actually take a few forms, and it could also be a shape-shifting institutional arrangement. One of the points we want to emphasize is that these institutions might be something like the U.N. or they might be something we haven't anticipated. But we expect these institutions will take the form of adaptation mechanisms that allow the existing elites and state powers to stay in control. They would allow these actors to maintain the stability of the social and political order, thus allowing capitalist firms to continue to behave as before. Current state structures would be able to maintain sovereign authority inside their territories and perhaps beyond. But the objective, really, would be to do as much as possible to make things stay the same despite the changing climate.

WPJ: With our current political climate, such as the U.S. pulling out of the Paris Agreement, do you see that process speeding up or changing at all?

GM: Certainly the current political climate changes things. We were writing the book as Trump got elected. He pretty much characterizes what we call a behemoth: a sovereignty obsessed, market faithful entity that screams “screw you” to all climate fearmongers and looks like the anti-Leviathan. I think the U.S. decision to pull out of Paris troubles not only our argument, but also the trajectory of the emergent order. I would argue, however, that we can see Leviathan reaffirming itself actively in reaction to the withdrawal. The EU is saying it's going to take a leadership role, China is chastising the U.S. and maintaining its commitments, and Canada also seems to be trying to claim some sort of leadership. Everybody knows how big the problem is, and they understand that all future geopolitics on any issue—resources, income, military, security—are going to be tied to the problem of climate. Arguably, even people inside the Trump administration know this to be true, but may be going about their strategies for the future in what we think of as a messed-up way. But I don't think the rest of the world is under any impression that the need to address climate change has somehow shifted after the U.S. dropped out, or that they should just throw up their hands to start pumping coal into their hoppers. In some ways, this has reaffirmed the rest of the planet’s commitment.

WPJ: Would you say that the actions of individual states are furthering the “Leviathan," even if that is not their goal?

GM: Yes, I would say that. If, say, China looks at the U.S. right now—and this is a total caricature—the state and its elites think, "What are they doing, they just pulled out of Paris. Everybody knows we're going to hell in a hand basket, what are they doing?"

I'm no expert on China, but I don't think anyone among the Chinese leadership believes that not doing something about climate change is an option. So even if the U.S. pulls out, China understands that dealing with climate change is not something they need an incentive to do—it's an imperative.  

Individual states matter whether or not they understand themselves to be participating in an emergent global order. But what matters more than anything else is that there is a systemic global context emerging where individual states play an integral role—though some states more so than others. What China decides to do will arguably affect the whole planet, but it will certainly affect regional geopolitics. The same might be said of the U.S., although I would say that the U.S. is increasingly an outlier. I do think that individual states matter, of course, but they matter in a global context.

WPJ: You have argued the capitalist elite is motivated to move toward adaptation in order to preserve the existing order. What does success look like for these actors?

GM: I think it looks a lot like now. And when I say elites I don't necessarily just mean the CEO of GE, I also mean people like myself, who on a global scale are well-off, privileged people whose lifestyle and opportunities depend upon the stability of the current order. So, to the extent that adapting to climate change is successful from that perspective, it is really about maintaining the stability of the social order.

Our fear about the degrading ecological environment is that that will produce social disorder that will then de-stabilize capitalist returns and the flow of international resources and capital. This is all at stake now, and so the extent that we can keep things as they are, despite the changing climate, is what successful adaptation looks like to Leviathan.

WPJ: Is there a gap between different states and their ability to adapt to climate change depending on their affluence and position within this structure?

GM: The current mode of planetary governance regarding climate change—substantiated in systems such as the Paris Agreement and Copenhagen—are driven largely by the developed, affluent world. That is not to say they're not trying to recruit participation from the global south and many lower-income countries, but I think those countries are rightly suspicious of the fact that the order that is supposed to come out of current climate initiatives is very much a status quo order. For them, the status quo is one of imperialism and colonialism and decades of ecological ravage. I think they understand the emerging order to be exactly that—a persistence of the status quo. It’s also part of why they are trying to negotiate their participation, despite their lack of geopolitical power.

WPJ: You suggest there’s a gap between climate justice and current efforts to address climate change. Are there actions that can be taken to lessen that gap?

GM: Interestingly enough, in the process of writing the book I have become more hopeful. As far as actions that can be taken, one of the most important things we need to do right now is to break out of the way we understand politics as being entirely contained within the nation-state model. To the extent that we expect success from negotiations with the various elites and states, I don’t think we're going to get anywhere. The most important thing we can do right now is probably to bring real democracy to the efforts to deal with climate change. And I think there's a sense right now, at least among elites, that we don't have time to do that.

But if we get ourselves out of this mode of imagining the realm where democracy operates, which is tricky but not impossible, then we can look at the alliances actually emerging on the ground to deal with the various ways in which climate change is affecting our lives. For example, we see massive mobilization internationally, but especially in North America, with environmental groups and unions coming together to think of initiatives outside of the frame of the nation-state.

Joel and I understand a lot of these movements, at least in their initial states, as being radical movements, movements for radical democracy, or movements for climate justice in a radical or radical-left way. But I don't think all the things I'm describing are necessarily radical. These changes are bringing together groups of people who don't understand themselves as politically aligned on every issue. And there are a lot of examples of this of activism happening among people we might not think of as liberals. There’s certainly lots of work on the city level, especially where there's policy work and urban planning. All these efforts matter extraordinarily. It's not like you need to be Lenin to make this happen. I think we probably need a couple of Lenins, but not everyone needs to be Lenin.



This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Interview conducted by Bryan Rubin]

[Photo courtesy of Geoffrey Mann]


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