The Coal Renaissance and Cosmopolitized Low-Carbon Societies

This text was written for a workshop on « Risk and Climate Change: The Shaping of a Cosmopolitan Future », held in Paris on 10-11 December 2012, in the frame of the Chaire of Ulrich Beck entitled « Cosmopolitan Risk Communities » at the Collège d’études mondiales.

Current efforts at ‘low-carbon transition’ are marked by a striking paradox: the ‘phenomenal’ and ‘historically incredible’ resurgence of coal. Exploration of the source of this conundrum opens up an analysis of current trends regarding low-carbon energy transitions in terms of the forging and emergence of ‘cosmopolitan climate risk communities’. Such an analysis is a case study in a broader shift to a methodologically cosmopolitan social science that involves empirical examination of processes of cosmopolitization and associated social, and not just technological, challenges of low-carbon transition. This leads to exposition of an emerging constellation of energy and political regimes connecting ‘clean coal’ with a ‘liberalism 2.0’ centred on a rising China. The low-carbon society emergent from these developments, however, is shown to be marked with intra-national inequality, violence, absurdity and a haunted schizophrenia more reminiscent of coal’s previous Dickensian heyday than the progressive and normatively cosmopolitan visions of much ‘low-carbon transition’ literature. The implications and possible emerging configurations of such a ‘clean coal’-based liberalism 2.0 are explored with particular reference to the changing natures and social definitions of techno-nationalism and cosmopolitan innovation.

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