Carbon law is an exponential narrative Rockström et al. (2017) famously introduced in A roadmap for rapid decarbonization

“We need to ‘halve global CO2 emissions every decade from 2020′ to maintain hope for a livable future.”

This narrative shows climate as a problem of language and imagination, a problem dimension beautifully introduced by Amitav Ghosh (2016).² As an exponential rule of thumb, the carbon law may be a good heuristic for physicists—but not for lawyers, the very group needed to translate it into language with actual legal meaning.

Exponential growth does not sit well with legal thought and lawyers’ training. This carbon law challenges our idea of international and constitutional law because law does not discount our rights and freedoms by carbon-intensity, and cannot reflect the timescales of feedbacks in the carbon cycle (decades to millennia). Yet it was barely reflected in legal discourse. Most lawyers may remain oblivious of such contradictions as long as the language of law has no place for them.

This is why more concretely than problem of language, I think of climate as a problem of translation. We may need to discuss such questions in public to start decarbonization.

In a way, it looks at the ‘we’ of climate discourse to ask how, in using words differently, ‘we’ can impact atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

This challenge goes beyond climate. It is about learning to protect our freedoms, rights, democracy, and rule of law under deep uncertainty.


Deep decarbonization: Daily global CO₂ reached 412.30 ppm CO₂ on April 1, 2020 (the time of writing), up e.g. from ~336 ppm CO₂ in 1979. Back then, atmospheric concentrations were high but manageable. Look around you now: <this> is how the climate emergency feels today. Even in 2020, most people are still unaware of the its scales and timescales, despite all the talk about ‘climate’ over the past years and decades. Those aware likely will not be able to think through the timescales that solutions would need to address (‘decades to millennia into the future,’ given feedbacks in the carbon cycle), simply because it stretches human imagination. And even if we were aware and could imagine solutions, we would likely be unable to build and implement them effectively at global scale (‘millions to billions of tons of CO₂ emissions per year’). So far the climate emergency in a nutshell.

// Analysis angle:
– Decarbonization as a problem of law and language
– Growth in climate-constrained worlds

– Simple effective social movement frames (Lakoff 2010)

Interdisciplinary analyses are be based on metrics such as sea-level rise and global CO₂ trend here, to visualize future impacts of climate-relevant decisions today.

  1. Rockström, Johan et al. 2017. “A Roadmap for Rapid Decarbonization.” Science 355(6331): 1269–71. doi: 10.1126/science.aah3443
  2. Ghosh, Amitav. 2016. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. University of Chicago Press.