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All too often, the climate problem is presented in apocalyptic terms. That is unjustified, because we have long been dealing with the ecological and social effects of climate change. Moreover, such an apocalyptic image is counterproductive because it leads us to thinking that there is nothing to be done about it, that it is too far away, or that it may not be all that bad. In fact, there was no model of the climate catastrophe that shows what the effects of climate change are and how to deal with such a crisis − until the corona crisis came. Beyond the rate at which the pandemic has developed, this crisis is very similar to the climate crisis, especially when it comes to the unjust distribution of luck and misfortune. The question is what the resemblances between the two crises are and how the corona approach informs us about possible and desirable approaches to deal with climate change.
In addition to causing a lot of misery, the corona crisis also disturbs many small plans. For example, I wanted to write a post about how the consequences of climate change are often presented in apocalyptic terms: the world that is coming to an end, the sea level rise that overcomes us like a tidal wave, nature that is destroyed.
My problem with images like these is that they present the climate disaster as 1) something to come in the future and 2) that will strike us in a single moment. I think that is a counterproductive image that makes people apathetic and gives rise to cognitive dissonance. The problem is too big, too unimaginable, too abstract. That makes it tempting to think that the moment when we are really affected by climate change is still a long way off and that it may well turn out not that bed after all.
Besides being counterproductive, the picture of an apocalyptic climate disaster is also incorrect. We are already in the middle of the climate crisis. Every day we experience the consequences: changing weather patterns, drought and floods, war and the influx of refugees. These are sometimes recognized as indications of the coming climate disaster, but not as manifestations of that climate disaster itself. The message is not that we must save the world before it is too late, but that we must intervene to prevent worse things from happening.
My hypothesis as to why the climate crisis is misunderstood is that climate change is the successor to the Cold War. They are consecutive manifestations of the end times as announced in the Bible.
In the 80’s there was a fear of ‘the bomb’. It could fall any time and then there would be no more humanity. The superpowers could only respond to the other party’s threat by having a more destructive arsenal of weapons. Thus, both parties obtained an unlikely amount of weapons that, thank God, have never been used. The arrival of the Apocalypse as feared did not materialize, but the threat now persisted in the form of climate change.
But in the case of climate change, there will be no mushroom cloud that heralds the beginning of Armageddon. No one has to press a big red button to cause this catastrophe. It is already happening and what we have to prepare for is that it will continue for a while. In fact, the conflicts and calamities will only get worse in the coming decades.
Another misconception is to view climate change primarily as an environmental problem. Of course, a warmer climate is bad news for the polar bear and many other animals, but it is especially bad news for ourselves. Climate change is much more of a social than an environmental problem.
It is best to see the climate problem as an issue that raises big questions about the way economic and political institutions are structured, but above all it is about the distribution of opportunities and fortune.
In many ways, the climate problem thus resembles the global catastrophe we are currently experiencing. The corona pandemic also has a huge impact on the institutions whose operation we have never questioned until now, and the pandemic makes a deadly distinction between those who are lucky and those who are not. The main difference seems to be the speed at which the crisis unfolds. The corona crisis has traveled around the world in a few months, while we have known for decades that the climate is changing.
The corona crisis shows that the global business economic system is not equipped to deal with major shocks − it is not very resilient. There only needs to be one factory that can no longer supply the necessary materials and the global supply chain is broken. The network of companies in which money and goods circulate has become increasingly intricate. It has become an optimized system in which all parts fit together flawlessly, but also crashes irrevocably if one of those parts does not function.
This involves products that are now essential such as mouth masks and medicines, but it also concerns empty shelves in the supermarket. In the case of climate change, it will not be toilet paper or pipettes, but mainly food. After all, the agricultural system developed to feed billions of people is based on the assumption that the weather doesn’t change too much and that there is a more or less constant supply and discharge of water. Of course there have always been crop failures and floods, but those are periodic disasters. A higher global temperature leads to fundamentally changing weather patterns. What was once a wet area can become dry and vice versa. Crops no longer grow where they once grew well. Where shortages of medical devices are now arising due to clogged supply channels, it will be a matter of time when there are places in which food can no longer be produced.
Our enormous mobility plays an important role in both the corona and the climate crises. The virus travels with people who travel to distant countries for holidays or for business. At the same time, all that travel causes the emissions. Mobility costs energy and the faster and further you go, the more energy you need. The problem is that fossil fuels are the most suitable energy carriers for movable goods such as cars, ships and aircraft. To an increasing extent, electric cars can drive with sustainably generated energy, but the moment that airplanes fly on batteries is still far away − if that moment ever comes.
To stop the pandemic, we have to periodically renounce our mobile lifestyle. It is important to minimize contact with others. It is a side effect that this also brings large parts of the economy to a halt, with unprecedented economic decline as the inevitable consequence.
The opposite seems to be the case with climate change: limiting economic activity is not a side effect, but the key issue. In fact, the entire economy is no different than a process in which we convert natural raw materials into useful products and services (such as air travel) and waste (such as greenhouse gases). Combating climate change can therefore only be achieved through the reduction of economic growth and/or the containment of waste flows.
It goes without saying that climate policy focuses primarily on making the economy more sustainable, so that the size and impact of waste flows can be reduced. If that does not work, the economy will decline. It is important to realize that this will not be a conscious choice, but the consequence of the effects of climate change itself. As stated above, climate change will lead to disruption of production chains. Food and other raw materials will no longer be able to be supplied through existing distribution channels, resulting in a sad result of geopolitical, humanitarian and economic crises.
Think about it: many, if not all, wars in history revolved around the question of which country has access to certain resources. If new scarcity occurs, whether it be oil, water or fertile soil, it can lead to military activity within or between states. In the civil wars of Rwanda, Darfur and Syria, there are indications that climate change has played a role in this. The crop failures due to drought and the depletion of the land due to changing climatic conditions, in addition to lust for power, fanaticism and racial hatred, have been factors contributing to the emergence of these catastrophic conflicts.
The humanitarian misery is enormous, just think of the massacres, famines and flows of refugees that we have seen over the decades. In addition to this visible suffering, there is also the many invisible suffering of farmers who harvest too little to support themselves or coastal inhabitants who see their village disappear into the sea. But it is not only far away, it is also about things that we can see on a daily basis, workers in the ‘old’ industry who lose their jobs, entrepreneurs who see their investments disappear, householders who see their houses sink, and so on.
Typically, we hardly recognize this as symptoms of the climate disaster we are in, instead we see it as isolated phenomena or symptoms of the coming climate disaster. The conclusion that seems so obvious is just not drawn.
The climate crisis is more about the distribution of opportunities and fortune than the distribution of individual and collective prosperity. It is here that the climate crisis is perhaps most similar to the corona crisis. Whether you become infected with the coronavirus or not is above all a matter of luck. If you live in a country where circumstances prevail that have led to greater numbers of seriously ill and dead people, that is simply misfortune. Nobody deserves to get sick, nobody has the right to stay healthy. This certainly does not mean that the responses do not differ in wisdom and desirability, but that the question of who gets sick or stays healthy is a matter of fate.
With Covid-19, it is mainly elderly people who suffer severely. However, viruses such as H1N1, which caused the Spanish flu, and AIDS have mainly caused younger victims. There is nothing to say in advance about the consequences of the next major epidemic. Each is deadly in its own way. Of course, just like now, there are myopic and bigoted people who consider it unproblematic that people die who otherwise would have died in the near future or who see AIDS as a punishment for homosexuality or promiscuity, but the cruelty of an epidemic is the cruelty of arbitrariness.
As some population groups are unlucky, there are large differences in the opportunities that countries have to defend themselves against the consequences of corona. Are there sufficient resources to deal with the biggest economic problems? Can we scale up the capacity of the ICs, get help from neighboring countries? Is it possible to isolate people and can we purchase scarce medicines and medical devices? Even countries that have the means to get out of the crisis have their hands more than full. The countries that were already worst off will only be hit harder.
The visible distress of the corona crisis necessitates rigorous national action. The much slower developing crisis of climate change does not yet create the same sense of urgency: agreements between countries are made and treaties are signed, policy is being developed nationally. This is all necessary, but at this moment by no means all of these plans are converted into concrete actions.
Here too, countries with enough resources will be able to take effective action at a later stage, if the need is really felt, and here too the countries with the least opportunities will suffer the most. They have neither enough money nor the technical means to raise dikes, to move rivers, to build dams. They do not have the ability to buy their materials elsewhere. Individuals will try to flee, countries will be destitute.
This crises only widen the gap between the rich and the poor, they make uneven distributions even more uneven. In addition, the losers are the losers because they were unlucky enough to be on the wrong side of the gap.
It has become a cliché, but the corona crisis teaches us that we are all vulnerable. That solidarity is still the only remedy to manage the pandemic. It should be no different during the climate crisis. It is not about guilt or penance, shame or reason, long or short term. It is ultimately about the distribution of bad luck and happiness, a distribution that is intrinsically unjust.
We need to think about how we can minimize this injustice, especially by thinking about how to organize effective measures. The question is how we can organize dealing with the climate disaster.
International coordination is necessary, but not sufficient. As is also shown by the corona crisis. Obviously, science operates internationally and the WHO coordinates as much expertise and advice as possible. But countries act in their own way and at their own pace. Some commentators see this as the return of the nation state. That is nonsense, the nation-state has never been away. It is simply the only organizational form that can effectively tackle social problems. In spite of supranational organizations such as the United Nations, national states must be called upon to actually implement a decision, even if the wanderlust of viruses and emissions causes them to cross national borders without effort.
We must therefore be able to make international decisions on tackling climate change, based on a shared fate, while at the same time thinking carefully about how these agreements can be converted into concrete actions within national borders.
Dreams of a new world are just as unhelpful as dystopias about a coming Apocalypse. If you assume an impending disaster, you will raise voices that claim that we must stop refugees or support old industry. After all, the link between the climate problem and refugee flows or bankrupt factories can simply be ignored or denied if the problem lies in a distant future.
I do not want to say that the climate crisis resembles the corona crisis in everything, but the current corona crisis can teach us a lot about how to deal with concrete and direct catastrophes. We do not need to assume business as usual any longer, now that we know that our lives can become abnormal any time; we do not have to dream about a new political-economic order, but we must ask ourselves how we can make such a global crisis as manageable as possible within existing institutional frameworks − in which the unjust distribution of bad luck should serve as a moral guideline.