No More Words
A Call For Action
Climate change is an existential threat to our material basis of existence, to our social relations and to the right of every being to experience an intact nature. We are already seeing rapid changes in our natural environments. Climate change has become an undeniable fact in our lifes.
The narrative of an ecological catastrophe implies that we will all be hit equally, that “we get what we deserve”. The truth is: Those who have contributed the least are suffering the most. Climate change is an issue of justice and whether or not we start transforming knowledge and words in action is a deeply moral question.
Serious, effective action on climate change requires more honesty to ourselves about the scale of the problem, about our own contribution and possible impact. We need to be critical and put our beliefs in technical solutions and in change coming from politics to the test.
I hope I can share some valuable insights with you.
Thanks for being part of the journey!
The Totality of Freedom
Growing living standards around the world allow an increasing number of people to get a proper diet, to buy things they need for their life and to go where they have to go. Plus, in many cases, growing living standards have been accompanied by civilisatory processes that brought about institutional achievements like education, health care systems, and human rights. The fulfillment of basic needs and functioning institutions together provide the basis for happiness as we define it in our modern world.
Looking at free market democracies that have overpassed the fulfillment of basic NEEDs for many decades, people are now living lifestyles of affluence, owning more and more things, moving around in ever bigger cars and taking the plane like their grandparents used to take the taxi. At the same time, it is evident that our drive to further and further increase material consumption does not lead to further satisfaction or happiness, but rather to a desire to get ever more, to an inflation of WANTs, along with a dramatic decrease of the time available to really enjoy, to feel these goods.
Along with lifestyles of affluence, we have developed the feeling, that the consumption of goods and services, no matter in what scale, is part of our freedom, some kind of “human right” that we obtain with the money we earn and that we exercise by spending this money. In modern societies with their unbowed belief in progress, future has always been seen as something with more opportunities and more freedom. Bringing these to parts together, a livable future is necessarily seen as more consumption and more economic activities, in short, as a material “more of the present”. This however, couldn’t be more disconnected from the simple truth that we live on a planet with limited resources.
A biosphere on the brink of collapse
Human beings now use up the resources of an equivalent of 1.7 planet earths. If everyone lived like the Germans/Chinese/Taiwanese, we would even need 3.1/2.0/ 3.4 planet earths. With the loss of biodiversity, the vast changes in landscapes, the pollution of our natural environment with non-degradable substances and materials such as plastic, we are approaching or overpassing planetary boundaries everywhere. This means, that the resources planet earth can sustainably provide within one year are exhausted before the year is actually over. For 2019, the day when these resoruces were used up was on July, 29th. For the rest of the year, we were consuming at the expense of future generations. Looking at previous “Earth Overshoot Days”, it becomes clear, that we are reaching this date earlier every year (1990: 7th of December, 2000: 1st of November, 2010: 21st of August, 2019: 19th of July).
Does Your lifestyle respect planetary boundaries? How many planets would we need if everbody lived like you?
Our greenhouse gas emissions, causing the problem of global climate change, is only part of our ecological footprint. However, here, things look the most daunting. We are performing an unprecedented destruction of our atmosphere, possibly leading to tipping points in the global climate system that initiate unpredictable and irreversible further changes. These changes are likely to be irreversible, meaning that our biosphere is subject to destruction beyond repair. In the past years, we have seen that climate predictions have often underestimated the speed of climate change-induced changes in ecosystems such as the melting of the arctic ice shield. The effects of climate change are noticable around the world with the increase of extreme weather events, droughts and the extinction of species. Things have already begun to change dramatically.
In the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, the dramatic difference of life in a 1.5°C warmer world instead of a 2°C one (see here) has been emphasized. Yet, time is running out at giddy speed. With the current level of global emissions, the remaining CO2 budget to still meet the 1.5°C goal would be used up in less than seven years (for the 2°C goal: in less than 26 years). Current commitments by governments around the world are rather pointing to a 3 or 4° C warmer world. It’s hard to imagine what that means, but some experts say that a world like this could become an almost impossible place for most people to live in.
What does all this mean for our freedom to consume, our proclaimed “right” to affluent lifestyles? At this point, I want to remind, what the proponents of the Enlightenment, who created the basis of our concept of freedom rigths, have imagined this freedom to be. From Thomas Hobbes, we learnt that absolute freedom rights, meaning the absence of any superior power, only leads to the law of the jungle and finally bondage again. Rousseau has stressed that someone who is only following his or her drives and egoism, is not really free. Freedom that lets us thrive needs to be checked by the consideration of our counterpart with his/her own freedom rights. Kant put forth both a theory of moral action and a legitimation for the government. According to him, the role of the government is to keep the individual spheres of freedom in balance. On the one hand that means, that a maximum of freedom should be granted, where there is no one negatively impacted by it. On the other hand, the government has to limit individual freedom where it’s effects are going at the expense of the freedom or well-being of others.
In our case of material consumption, existing political entities are either not able or not willing to regulate our actions. As a consequence, we are rampant, totally out of control. Our ignorance regarding planetary boundaries when fulfilling our luxury WANTs shows that we are denying the most simple and basic ethical insight, that freedom can only be sustainable and responsible, if it respects the freedom and integrity of others. Our unwillingness to accept the inconvenient truth of an upcoming catastrophe and to overthink our lifestyles are – in their consequences – violent actions against future generations and more vulnerable people in other parts of the world. Thus, the nature of this freedom to unlimited consumption and pollution in it’s current unchecked form compares to the one people possess in a state of Hobbesian anarchy. The only little difference is, that we don’t see the ones we hurt, culprits and victims are spatio-temporally separated. Yet, impacts are not less real, just much less relatable.
Less talking, more honesty
Recently, school protests by hundreds of thousands of students around the world (“Fridays For Future”) have drawn more attention to the topic and an increasing number of people in Europe and other parts of the world is urging politics to take serious action to fight climate change. This is good and right, since governments have failed to place the right incentives to decarbonize national economies and energy supply systems, quite on the contrary often enough play a crucial role in maintaining the status quo (e.g. subsidies). It’s high time for politicians to finally do their homework and act on behalf of the people and the future.
But, however convenient it might be to point at politicians, we have to recognize that in modern market democracies, the capacity of governments to reduce individual people’s (carbon) footprints without challenging their lifestyles, is very limited. The chart on the right shows the annual CO2 emissions of an average German citizen (middle), of a person trying to incorporate planetary boundaries into everyday life (left), and of someone with excessive levels of material consumption (right). Their very different CO2-footprints clearly show the huge impact that changes in individual lifestyles have.
It’s out of the question, that any German environment politics could reduce per capita CO2 emissions “top down” to levels like this without making use of far-reaching prohibitions of harmful lifestyle practices (forbidding/limiting flights, meat, cars). And of course, prohibitions like those are highly unpopular among a popluation believing in unrestrained consumption as an unimpeachable freedom right. As a consequence, no political actor with siginifcant power (that has to fear not to be re-elected), including all “green” parties I have ever heard of, is willing to take the risk and bring those measures like those up.
All the solutions on the table
Politicians’ fear to be unpopular prevents them not only from taking serious action, it also prevents them from talking clearly, from telling the truth about what has to be done. They (and we) have wasted so much time with wishful thinking of our hedonistic lifestyles to be compatible with a sustainable future (e.g. the discussion about “renewable energies” and “green growth”). It has led us to harmful pseudo-solutions like the idea of growing our fuels on precious arable land, reviving nuclear energy or exchanging propulsion technologies in cars without talking about reductions in size, total numbers, let alone their frequencies of use. Even highly risky “end of the pipe” solutions like the idea we could go on burning coal, then capture the exhaust gases and store it underground are more popular than telling people that there is no alternative to cutting overall material consumption.
If politicians and other elites are not honest to us, then we have to be honest to ourselves all the more. There are no CO2-neutral cars, livestock will not stop emitting greenhouse gases and planes cannot increase efficiency by 6 % every year and fly without fuel in 2050. We have to recognize that the most effective measures against climate change are on the table. They are: dumping your car, stop eating meat and dairy, reducing and reusing things, not taking the plane. There are physical limits for reductions from new technologies and efficiency initiatives. That’s why it’s all about stopping and reducing harmful things.
By design or by disaster?
We still have some space for action, it is still in our hands, to decide whether this change is going to happen by design or by disaster. If we manage to do so is an open question. It is the question, whether or not we are subjects, able to transform our knowledge into empathy and action, or if we are just background artists in a play with fixed roles anyways, dutifully obeying the steady stage direction “more, more, more” and doomed to end in catastrophe. Absolute freedom means anarchy – and that is exactly what we are enforcing when we claim or defend “rights” to consume (and pollute) as much as we want. The problem with absolute freedom is, that it potentially includes the annihilation of our fellow human beings.
Thus, whether or not we do manage to start with serious action towards climate change is the question, whether or not we, as a species, as different cultures, as individuals are mature enough to make intelligent use of the historically unique freedom we are enjoying.
"Now we are almost at the end of my talk, and that is were people usually talk about hope. Solar panels, wind power, circular economy and so on. But I'm not going to do that. We've had 30 years of pep-talking and selling positive ideas. And I'm sorry, but it doesn't work. Because if it would have, the emissions would have gone down by now. They haven't. And yes, we do need hope - of course we do. But the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come."
Greta Thunberg, TEDxTalk in Stockholm, 2018