Performative Futures

Updated: Dec 3, 2020

I want to refer to an interesting article I read recently: Jon Barnett (2019) on Climate Change and Climate resilient peace, published in the Journal of Human Geography. Referring to the relationship between a changing climate and the outbreak or likelihood of violent conflict, he states the following:

“Climate-induced violence is key to dystopian climate imaginaries produced through film, media, novels, poetry, scholarships, speeches and theatre. These imaginaries are geopolitical and temporal in the way they describe future places being prone to violence and disorder, in turn influencing present forms of action and inaction. While such imaginaries of a world that is more climatically and politically violent are arguably a product of late-modern anxieties more than they are of research, formal investigation of the topic is nevertheless important because it gives license to (and can help constrain) these imaginaries, and informs many security policy communities seeking to prepare for a possibly more turbulent world.”

The relationship between climate change and violent conflict is a research topic that has been brought into focus over the past couple of years by scholars but also climate activists and social movements. The narrative is always the same: Climate Change as a security threat. Climate change as THE threat to human life and ecosystems alike. Glaciers melt. Deserts spread. Biodiversity decreases. Oceans full of plastic and ice bears who lose their home – most of you are probably familiar with the pictures we see and the stories we get told (and tell) about climate change.

These are all scientific facts. Measurable and quantifiable. However, what is not a scientific fact, is the connection between climate change and a future that is more violent. And this is what Jon Barnett argues: “The future is not a climatically determined place”. The scientific facts of today do not define the future we’re going to live in.

Barnett introduces a new term: performative futures. Futures are, according to him, performative, as in they depend on how individuals act in the present. And these actions (or in-actions) in turn depend on how the individual is imagining the future. Because all action in the present, following this argument, is designed to fit the future the actor imagines. Breaking it down to an example: If Donald Trump doesn’t believe in climate change and expects the future to be somewhat like today, he will dedicate his actions towards keeping the status quo alive. Greta Thunberg on the other side, who strongly advocates for climate change policies and expects the future to be a dystopia if no restrictions are taken, will dedicate her actions towards limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

The basic point: the way we talk about climate change influences how we imagine our future. It influences how we frame problems and what kind of solutions we’re defining. And ultimately, it performs the future we are going to live in.

For further information

  • Barnett, J. (2019). Global environmental change I: Climate resilient peace? . Progress in Human Geography, Vol. 43(5), pp. 927-936.

  • Cillizza, C. (2018, 11 27). Donald Trump buried a climate change report because "I don't believe it". Retrieved from CNN Politics:

  • CNA Corporation. (2007). Report: National security and the threat of climate change. Retrieved from

  • Ide, T. (2016). Toward a constructivist understanding of socio-environmental conflicts. Civil Wars, Vol. (18:1), pp. 69-90.

  • Koubi, V. (2019). Climate Change and Conflict. Annual Review of Political Science, Vol. 22, pp. 343-360.


  • drawings by fruzsolino and pigwire

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