Introduction: the climate crisis is a societal crisis
The Paris Climate Agreement is a legally binding international treaty whose signatories agreed to take action to stop global warming. The recent IPCC report reiterated what has been known for years: There is an urgency. Measures taken so far are inadequate. According to a recent UN report, the measures now decided by its member states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will not reduce emissions but, on the contrary, increase them.
The climate and environmental crisis is a societal crisis. Political leaders lack the will to act effectively to save our living environment. In this respect, democracies have not succeeded substantially better than authoritarian countries. The climate crisis is also a crisis of democracy. According to a recent poll, ”53% of young Europeans think authoritarian states are better equipped than democracies to tackle the climate crisis”.
Politicians’ actions on climate and environmental issues are marked by collective self-deception.
But in any case, the fate of humanity is in the hands of politicians. They make the laws in parliaments and the decisions in governments. Only enlightened public opinion can force them to act to save our environment.
If the viability of the planet is destroyed, the rich as well as the poor will eventually die. But so far, it is the poor countries and the most disadvantaged sections of the population in different countries, those who are least responsible for the destruction of the climate and the environment, who have suffered and continue to suffer most.
* Axel Oxenstierna was the Lord High Chancellor of Sweden (1583–1654)
Public opinion strong enough will not arise unless climate action is taken not only in terms of climate and environmental efficiency but also in a way that is fair to people. It is also, and above all, a problem of social justice.
Everyone has a share of responsibility for our environment. But more important than changing the consumption patterns of individuals is their action as citizens, exercising not only their right to vote but also their right to protest and demand that countries respect their environmental laws and international commitments.
Humanity has the know-how and the money to prevent the climate and environmental disaster
Humanity has the technical knowledge and the means to stop climate change, environmental degradation, and loss of nature. Those means are becoming more economically viable and are attracting more and more investors. They do not require excessive sacrifices from anyone if implemented fairly. But if implemented, they will prevent famine, pandemics, refugees, unemployment, social disintegration, etc., all of which are caused by environmental degradation.
It is not about money. With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was possible to create billions of new money to deal with the pandemic and the financial losses it caused. So why not to fight the climate disaster? Deficit hawks say they don’t want to leave debts to their children and grandchildren. But what good is not having debt for them if the planet becomes uninhabitable? Even if governments keep their promises to cut carbon emissions, children born in 2020 will experience many times more climate extremes in their lifetime than their grandparents.
Air pollution alone is already killing more people every year than the Covid-19 pandemic has killed so far.
Besides: governments pay far more in subsidies for economic activities that destroy the planet’s viability than they do for measures to save our habitat. For example, subsidies for fossil fuels are almost 20 times higher than for renewable energy.
Money, technical knowledge, or technology alone will not save humanity
Humanity is materially richer than ever in its history. But material wealth is created in a way that destroys the planet’s viability.
Humanity’s scientific knowledge has increased enormously over the last 500 years. Technology has advanced; we have experienced industrial revolutions and the information technology revolution. Yet self-destruction is closer than ever.
History shows that technical knowledge and technological inventions do not in themselves bring social progress. They can also be used as instruments of human self-destruction – nuclear weapons being the most obvious example of this.
The internet, for example, has empowered individuals in unprecedented ways. But it has also led to new negative phenomena. Social media is plagued by hate speech, fake news, and conspiracy theories. Irish Emeritus Professor John Naughton has aptly described the problems caused by the fact that more than a half of the world’s net users use Facebook:
“It was therefore inevitable that it too would become a mirror for human nature – and that people would use it not just for good purposes, but also for bad. And so they have.” (The Guardian, May 28, 2017.)
Despite the material wealth, technical knowledge and technology, humans have a poor grasp of the laws of their own thinking and behaviour. Nature is being destroyed because humans have no control over their own nature.
The cause of the worsening climate and environmental crisis: collective self-deception
The reason for inaction in the face of declining global viability is the collective self-deception of political and economic decision-makers.
For years, the political and economic leaders of all countries have known about the threat of climate change. Ignorance of what should be done to save the planet’s viability has been active – collective self-deception.
Most decision-makers also know that humanity has the means to stop the catastrophe.
In August 2018, the children’s protest movement that began with the school strike of then 15-year-old Greta Thunberg has literally put into practice the events of a well-known fairy tale: it takes a little child to say something that everyone sees but no one dares to say out loud: “The emperor has no clothes!”
Collective self-deception is caused by decision-makers’ fear that taking effective action might threaten their position and/or support.
Politicians’ actions are understandable from their point of view. Only by getting elected and getting into decision-making positions can they promote the cause of their interest group and their electorate. If these do not consider environmental measures important, politicians tend to adapt to it. From the perspective of humanity’s overall benefit – and their own and their constituents’ long-term interests – this is, of course, irrational and self-destructive, as self-deception always is.
Current mainstream economics is a fig leaf of collective self-deception
Current economics considers the destruction of the planet as an economically profitable activity.
It still counts economic activity that will eventually make all human life on Earth impossible as economic growth.
If medicine aimed to cure diseases regardless of whether the patient survives or not, it would not be considered scientific. Similarly, economic theories that do not take into account the environmental damage caused by economic activity cannot be considered scientific.
Policymakers and companies have been able to rely on economics in allowing an economic system in which disregard for the planet’s viability remains a competitive advantage.
Since the Paris Climate Agreement in 2016, major international banks have invested $ 3,000 billion in the fossil fuel industry. Their solvency depends on, e.g., the returns on those investments. If revenues are jeopardised, the world could be threatened by a new financial crisis. If the returns materialise, the planet will be threatened by a climate crisis. In practice, decision-makers tend to ignore the latter crisis for fear of the former one.
Sustainable economic growth in terms of our living environment and human well-being requires a new measurement alongside the gross domestic product (GDP) currently in use. That is the conclusion reached by a report commissioned by the UK Treasury (pdf, p. 12, 75) and chaired by Partha Dasgupta, Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Cambridge.
Economic growth that threatens the conditions for human life on Earth is negative growth. In fact, the economically most productive activity for the overall benefit of humanity is a social activity that exposes humanity’s most destructive collective self-deception at any given time.
Collective self-deception is seen in the contradiction between words and deeds – with devastating consequences
Most politicians have a huge gap between words and deeds: words acknowledge the threat of climate and environmental crises, but deeds remain half-hearted at best.
The contradiction between words and deeds of the decision-makers is at the heart of Thunberg’s public speeches. For example, at the UN Climate Action Summit in September 2019 in New York, she said:
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! ” (NPR 23 september, 2019)
A recent study found that not only is the majority of young people “extremely worried” about climate change, but “the high levels of psychological distress in youth is linked to government inaction”.
If politicians say one thing and do another, if citizens feel mistreated, if they are not listened to and cannot influence decisions that affect them, they may lose faith in constructive social influencing in general and vote in protest for demagogic candidates such as Donald Trump in the US or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. – Unfortunately, the policies of such authoritarian leaders are destructive also in areas other than the environment.
Only an enlightened public opinion can help against collective self-deception
Ultimately, we depend on the actions of politicians. The decisions on which the planet’s viability lies are made by governments on the basis of laws passed by parliaments.
Only pressure from public opinion can persuade political decision-makers and the judiciary to take adequate action to halt the devastating development.
The members of society are first and foremost citizens and only secondarily consumers. As citizens, they can elect environmentally aware decision-makers from different political parties. As citizens, they can participate in protests against the collective self-deception of politicians. As citizens, they can also sue the states and companies that do not care about the environment.
Enlightened opinion on environmental issues arises even in authoritarian states. Authoritarian leaders also need some legitimacy in the eyes of their citizens. It is threatened if they fail to protect their citizens from increasingly destructive weather phenomena.
Polluters understand the importance of public opinion – hence disinformation
Many polluting companies and industries also seek to create public opinion.
The oil companies’ own scientists discovered decades ago that fossil fuels were causing “dramatic environmental effects before the year 2050”, (pdf, p. 17). The results of their research were concealed, and false information was deliberately spread to citizens.
At the turn of the millennium, when it was no longer possible to completely deny climate change, companies changed their marketing tactics. They spent hundreds of millions of dollars to divert attention from their own polluting activities to the individual behaviour of citizens.
Maybe the best example of oil companies’ clever efforts to influence public opinion is calculating a personal carbon footprint. It was launched by the oil company BP. Though it is useful to draw attention also to private consumption, individual behavioural changes would only account for about 4% of the necessary reductions.
Tobacco companies once lied for decades about the dangers of smoking. Now, fossil fuel companies are increasing the threat of much greater destruction by spreading misleading information about their products. Some oil companies have already been taken to court for this.
Environmentally conscious public opinion requires a focus on the main issue to emerge
A large majority of citizens in most G-20 countries believe that human activity is pushing the planet towards a dangerous tipping point, putting nature conservation ahead of profit and jobs. We believe the same is true for citizens in other countries.
Citizens concerned about the climate and environmental crisis must be encouraged to vote, regardless of party affiliation, for candidates who take climate issues seriously.
Demonstrations calling for more effective action should agree on symbols that all environmentally aware people can share. For example, ‘anti-capitalist’ and other protests calling for radical systemic change should be kept separately.
Stopping climate change and environmental degradation does not require a radical change in social systems. Linking the two is wrong and can only slow down and hinder the formation of public opinion demanding more effective climate and environmental action.
Humankind will increasingly have to learn to join together globally. True radicalism in climate and environmental issues now means moderation, the ability to form alliances with representatives of opposing ideological and political tendencies, interest groups and states to save the planet’s viability.
Enlightened public opinion can only be formed on the basis of justice
The disadvantaged – be they individuals, social groups or countries – are less able than the advantaged to influence the world as a whole or their own affairs.
The disadvantaged destroy the environment less than the advantaged but suffer much more from the decline in the planet’s viability.
The rich industrialised countries got rich and industrialised over the course of a couple of centuries by polluting the environment in a way that is not and must not be possible for today’s poor countries. That should be taken into account when planning global climate action.
Justice must be put at the heart of the environmental debate. It will ensure the support of the majority of citizens, so it will be easier to take the necessary action.
Targeting climate protests on ordinary citizens is unfair
Civil disobedience is to be welcomed and is not against the rule of law when there is an ethical-intellectual justification for it: political decision-makers do not obey the laws they have passed or refuse to change a law that has obviously had its day. But civil disobedience must always be practised in a spirit of dialogue and with moderation and open cards.
Violence is unacceptable. Besides, studies show that nonviolent expressions of opinion are more effective than violent ones.
Civil disobedience on climate and environmental issues should be directed against those whose actions undermine the planet’s viability. Greenpeace is generally a good example of this.
Civil disobedience that is mainly directed at ordinary citizens is, in our view, wrong. The protests of the Extinction Rebellion movement are unfortunately often of this kind.
Covid-19 pandemic brought forth vaccine nationalism – “climate nationalism” is not possible
The vast majority of political leaders in rich countries are sure to sign the thesis of the WHO and other experts saying that in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, “no one is safe until everyone is safe”. In other words, the entire global population should be vaccinated as soon as possible by sharing vaccine production and the manufactured vaccines in a rational, globally agreed way.
The IMF calculates that a global vaccination programme would cost around $50 billion. Stopping the pandemic in this way would bring a return of $9,000 billion, a 180-fold return on investment in a few years. And this calculation does not take into account the loss of life and other human suffering caused by the continuation of the pandemic.
Nevertheless, governments in all rich countries have chosen the path of vaccine nationalism.
That is understandable: a politician who actively opposed vaccine nationalism in the West would soon be a former politician. But it is still a question of collective self-deception, of pursuing one’s own immediate interests in a way that may, in a longer term, work against the interests of all, since vaccine nationalism increases the likelihood of ever more dangerous virus variants emerging.
In the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is possible at least to imagine that the virus could be kept outside national borders by restrictive measures. Hence the lack of an enlightened public opinion in favour of a global response to the pandemic and the triumph of vaccine nationalism in the West.
“Climate nationalism” is hardly possible. After all, it is not possible to stop global warming at national borders.
Humankind will learn - when there is no other option
Regarding the climate and environmental crisis, a sufficiently strong public opinion may emerge.
Evidence for this is, e.g., that ecology has become an advertising asset not only for politicians but also for companies. Admittedly, it is often almost a mere greenwash, but it shows a change in atmosphere.
There are concrete reasons for the change in public opinion. It is not even conceivable that any region or country could survive if the planet’s viability is destroyed. In this issue, public and private interests are increasingly becoming the same. The short and long-term interests are also becoming the same.
Climate change is accelerating, but so is the change in public opinion. Citizens are seeing global warming and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events – storms, floods, drought, heat, wildfires – as well as environmental pollution, the disappearance of seasons, and loss of nature more and more in their own lives.
A recent study on social change movements from the early 20th century to the early 21st century showed that nonviolent change movements achieved their goal if they managed to mobilise around 3.5% of the population to participate in protests.
In democratic rule-of-law states, the forces of change have one more tool: they can sue corporations and governments. There are currently more than 1,500 climate-related lawsuits pending around the world. For example, in the Netherlands, a court ordered Shell to reduce its emissions. In Germany, the Constitutional Court ordered the government to enact more ambitious climate-change laws. In Australia, a federal court ruled that the environment minister has a duty to protect young people against climate change. And so on.
The growing importance of the rule of law is one of the key features of the essence of our era. It is also evident in the struggle to preserve the planet’s viability.