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Jean Philippe Sapinski

J.P. Sapinski is assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of Moncton in New Brunswick, Canada. His research focuses on how capitalist structures and corporate power mediate social metabolism between human societies and ecosystems, and how this relationship can be transformed and decolonized to make it just and sustainable. He is co-author of Organization 1%. Co-author of "How Corporate Power Works" (Fernwood, 2018) and co-author of "Come to this? The Promise and Dangers of Geoengineering on the Edge" (Rutgers 2020).

Jean Philippe Sapinski:

1. As you explain in the introduction to your book, geoengineering is a deliberate and large-scale intervention in the Earth's climate system to try to mitigate the adverse effects of global warming. What role do you think geoengineering plays in environmental governance?

[**I modified slightly the wording of the question to reflect that this is the widely accepted definition of geoengineering, that we’re just repeating in the book. It is not something original that we came up with.]

Different geoengineering strategies such as building machines to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air, making ocean clouds brighter, or spreading sulphur particles in the stratosphere have been discussed for many decades now. Up to now, as these strategies are not operational on a large scale, geoengineering has figured in environmental governance as a “promise”, as Nils Markusson and his colleagues phrase it: the mere fact that they might exist one day allows to think that elites can delay climate action further down the road, as they’ve been doing for decades. So they function as a discourse that legitimizes delay, by promising that in the future, if large polluters have not reduced their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions enough, it will be possible to deploy this array of strategies and still preserve a coherent earth system and functional societies.

Now, what we are seeing since the last few years is geoengineering moving closer to the political agenda in the US, thanks to the lobbying of a small group of enthusiasts who argue that it is necessary to research these strategies and to use them, as there the current accumulation of GHGs in the atmosphere ensures a warming of over 2 degrees. They argue that geoengineering should be considered are a third approach to address the climate crisis, alongside emissions reduction and adaptation to the effects of increased temperatures. And so, a report of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine published this last March recommends state funding of solar geoengineering at a level of 100 to 200 million US dollars. Contrary to what we thought, it is not conservatives who push forward geoengineering right now. The issue is being moved forward by liberal-minded technology enthusiasts, mostly white men, some of them who are close to the higher echelons of the democratic party. So, it looks like geoengineering is poised right now to be put on the policy agenda in the next few years in the US. Once it becomes part of US environmental governance, given the geostrategic implications, other countries might be tempted to follow suit of course.

2. Do you think the Biden administration's climate finance initiative, which promotes capital flows to address climate change and increases "climate-friendly investments", is conducive to geoengineering?

The Biden administration is trying to make up for four years lost to climate action. However, the money amounts discussed still fall very far from what would be actually needed, and the new climate targets still do not reflect historical contribution by the US. Depending on whether lobbying by geoengineering enthusiasts is successful in moving the item further up the agenda, some of this funding may be directed toward geoengineering research. But there is still a lot of uncertainty. Many climate justice activists and Indigenous groups are well aware of discussions around geoengineering and are starting to mobilize against what they see as yet another “false solution” that allows emissions to keep increasing. Their work might counterbalance lobbying and keep the item off the agenda, as there is a lot of fear among the public when one talks about changing something as fundamental and complex as the climate system – and rightly so I think.

3. In recent years, climate change has become an inescapable global public issue. What do you think is the root cause of this dilemma?

The root cause of the climate crisis is well understood now: capitalist industrial production is putting too much greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and by so doing, destabilize the climate system. The heat balance of the earth is upset, as more heat comes in than goes out, and so temperatures rise. Capitalism, as a mode of production, requires to grow constantly. Growth in the volume of economic transactions, as measured nationally by the gross domestic product (GDP), implies a growth in the throughput of matter and energy: goods and services do not appear out of thin air, they are produced using materials and energy, and their production creates wastes. These waste-products include GHGs, as most production requires fossil fuels. Some people believe it is possible to “decouple” capitalist production from GHG emissions – to keep increasing production while reducing emissions. It has been observed in some cases that emissions do not grow as fast as GDP, a situation called “relative decoupling”. But because of the growth motive that underlies capitalism, an actual reduction in emissions as economies grow – “absolute decoupling” – is not possible: it is not possible to create goods and services without matter and energy from which to produce them. These dynamics play out in all countries right now, whether market-based like the US and Europe or state-planned like China.

Understanding that the root causes of the climate crisis, people across the world have been thinking of alternative ways of living for many decades. Activists calls for “system change, not climate change” reflect this understanding. The degrowth movement that rallies academics and activists directly addresses the growth dynamic, and argue that economies need to plan to shrink before climate catastrophe forces them to do so in an uncontrolled way – a civilizational crash – and many believe the state should get deeply involved in this transition. State-planned economies might be better positioned in this regard.

4. Currently, governments and enterprises are actively participating in the process of combating climate change, and the green and low-carbon transition development means huge business opportunities. Some people have suggested that carbon may become the new "international currency", what do you think of this idea?

I always take corporate pledges to reduce pollution of one type or another with a grain of salt. Many might be well-intentioned, but there are structural limits to what they can do: at the end of the day, they still need to churn out a profit for their shareholders, and this profit comes from production of goods and services that has an impact on the climate. To address this dilemma, in the 1990s, corporate and political elites came up with the expression “green economy”, by which they seek to convince people, including themselves, that it is possible to make money and protect the environment. It is indeed possible to sell all sorts of “environmentally-friendly” products, but do they really support a transition away from fossil fuels and alleviate environmental impacts? I doubt it, as the growth dynamic is not addressed: selling more and more environmentally-friendly products still has an impact, even if the impact of each individual product is lower.

5. Do you think there is a global inter-organizational infrastructure to support climate capitalism, and could this infrastructure be a capital force? I notice that you criticize green capitalism a lot. Do you think there's anything positive to say about it?

My research and that of others (e.g. by my colleague Nick Graham) shows networks exist that connect corporate elites together around the idea of climate capitalism – a low carbon economy where addressing climate change is a business opportunity. What I also found is that fossil fuel firms are closely embedded in this network as well. This might mean many things: perhaps they simply want to keep an eye on discussions, but it might also be that – and I think this is more likely in the light of more recent research by my colleague Bill Carroll and the Corporate Mapping Project team – that they want to be involved in the transition and control it as much as possible according to their interests. This means mainly delaying transition as much as possible so they can keep extracting oil and gas as long as possible, and also, in the meantime, devising a strategy to expand in other energy sectors. So, the role of climate capitalist networks is ambiguous at best in terms of transition.

What I’m finding in my more recent research, however, is that beyond the apparent split between fossil capital and climate capital, financial interests run the show. If you look at the top shareholders of publicly-traded fossil fuel companies and high-tech companies (and all other companies for that matter), they all look the same! The top shareholders are the large investment companies and banks, in particular BlackRock, Vanguard Capital and the Capital Group. Hence, there is an overarching financial interest in stretching transition as much as possible, so that current investments in fossil infrastructure can be fully recuperated while investments in so-called low-carbon sectors increase. The interest of these large financial firms is determinant in the end.

As to green capitalism, I think it is a very damageable idea. It is a metaphor designed by elites to fool people, and analysis shows it to be an impossibility as I explained. I simply don’t think capitalism can be “green”, unless you talk about the colour of money...

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