Climate in the Anthropocene

The idea of climate only makes sense when there is a degree of stability in some set of conditions, whether these be atmospheric, economic, political or moral. When everything is changing and no stable condition is possible — the situation to which the idea of the Anthropocene seeks to give expression — then the historical function of climate as a powerful way of ordering the world is diminished. People in the future will therefore have to learn to live without the modernist functional idea of climate.

The idea of climate mediates between the human experience of weather and cultural ways of living that are animated by that experience. It transforms the raw perception of a turbulent and untamed atmosphere—and the associated phenomena we call weather–into recognizable and expected patterns of atmospheric behaviour and performance. Although not fully predictable, these patterned elements of climate enable expectations of normal weather to be constructed. This then allows recognition of the abnormal. To say that today is ‘exceptionally warm for the time of year’ or that ‘we haven’t seen much rain this spring’ are claims that are possible only because of the normalizing idea of climate.

Yet there has always been an underlying tension and imaginative unease about the integrity of climate. Increasingly, people have altered their weather-worlds, whether deliberately or accidentally, whether locally or at scale, whether mandated or not. The reach of human agency has now so extended into the skies that in a new century the old assumptions about a stable climate are unmasked. Climates are changing ‘in front of our eyes’ and the old re-assurances offered by the idea of climate no longer hold. “The natural world inherited by modernity is gone and all the ideas that built on it now float on its memory” .

Instead, the idea of the Anthropocene reveals the power humans now have of composing the worlds future generations of humans and non-humans will live within. These worlds of manufactured nature consist not only of our bodies, robots, cities, species or ecosystems. They now also extend to the atmosphere and include new weather-worlds that are ‘in-the-making’. Climate can no longer be thought about imaginatively, nor used normatively, as it was in the past. The idea of climate no longer carries the same reassuring guidance for acting in the world.

So what imaginative resources do we have to guide weather-shaping practices in the Anthropocene? One suggestion is to use gardening as a metaphor for thinking about human attitudes towards weather-making. Gardeners require virtues of humility, cheerfulness and attentiveness as they go about their work. Gardens are of course a joint product of human imagination and skill, working with and through processes of soil conditioning, photosynthesis and the weather. There is a mutuality in which—at least in the best gardens–human vision and virtuous intention can find expression, alongside a celebration of the freedoms possessed by plants, animal life and soil.

Applying this metaphor to the future of climate moves the emphasis away from impossible ambitions to re-secure climate through modernist projects of control, whether these be through solar climate engineering, carbon dioxide removal technologies or even through re-engineering the world’s energy economy. Instead, it prompts us to think in terms of improvisation, of working with nature to fashion outcomes which are neither fully predictable nor fixed. And just as the garden reflects the virtues of the gardener, so we see that the weather-worlds of the Anthropocene will come increasingly to reflect the virtues, or vices, of the Anthropos. To an extent greater than ever before, the weather of the Anthropocene will come to reflect the moral standing of humanity. Our moral triumphs and failures on earth–the struggles between corruption and justice, greed and generosity, ignorance and ingenuity, hubris and humility–will be reflected in the sky.

The metaphor of gardening also highlights a further, somewhat paradoxical, point: the gardener always recognizes the limits to their cultivating and coaxing powers. So too in the skies will we need to recognize the limits of weather cultivation in the Anthropocene. There will always remain a powerful ’otherness’ to the weather. Just as past weather was never fully tamed, whether by supplication to the gods or through the protective idea of a stable climate, neither will future weather be fully domesticated by humans’ cultivating powers. To a substantial degree it will always exceed attempts at its cultivation, just as does the soil, the ocean or indeed the human body.