The Coming Calamity – Seite 1

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Humans are able to take care of themselves, of their families, their friends and perhaps even their countries. But apparently they aren't able to take care of their planet. Climate change is too large for our senses. It doesn't represent a sudden danger that befalls us. It is a more gradual one, a menace we have known for decades. It isn't a concrete, singular event, but a chain of dynamic processes. It doesn't just mean conflagrations, floods, poor harvests and climate refugees – all those horrors that we read about in the media. It also means the resplendent weather outside our front doors. "The nice is occurring in the immediate and individual, and the wrong is occurring systemwide," writes the American artist Roni Horn, describing what she calls the key paradox of our time. Specifically, she is referring to weather. The endlessly blue skies of summer 2018 were a symbol of that wrong.

When experts talk about the connection between weather and climate, they feel compelled to say things like: We are increasingly certain that the probability of extreme events increases as the Earth's average temperature rises. It would be more effective if they said: The forest fire outside of Berlin and the smell of smoke that caused thousands of Berlin residents to call the police on the morning of Aug. 24, 2018, was caused by the carbon dioxide that each and every one of us is responsible for.

We Don't Feel It Yet

Germany and Central Europe are not going to face tropical storms. Even during the driest summer on record, no German municipalities faced a shortage of drinking water. As a result, the worst consequences of global warming still sound like fiction to us, or at most like a reality that is far, far away. Those looking for a mild scare can start with this brushfire video from near Hollywood and then let the YouTube algorithm, with its characteristic logic of transcendent horrors, demonstrate just how awful climate change will become – or already is. Flooding. Drought. Flight. In theory, we know all about it. But we haven't yet experienced it ourselves.

The incongruity between the perception of one's own environment and that presented by the media is one of the most fundamental problems climate activists are facing. The larger and more destructive, the more biblical a catastrophe appears, the deeper those of us in the temperate zones – the primary precipitators of global warming – sink into a feeling of impotence. A feeling that is actually a form of acedia, a sort of listlessness or torpor.

The Paradox of Prevention

In his book "Facing Gaia," the French sociologist Bruno Latour summarizes this paralysis gripping the richest portion of humanity, those who are least likely to feel the effects of climate change, as a kind of prevention paradox. Imagine your child has a cold or your car is making a strange noise. From experience, you know that it probably won't turn out to be anything too terrible, but you go to the doctor or the mechanic anyway.

Guarding against unlikely, yet possible calamity is the essence of prevention. When it comes to climate change, our reflex seems to be the opposite: Year after year, the dire predictions come to pass. If there is any new insight on global warming at all, then it is simply the fact that things are actually going faster than feared: The melting of polar ice is more acute and sea levels are rising more quickly than initially predicted. We can be certain the disaster is coming, but we take no measures to limit the damage.

Every approach seeking to combat climate change with individual behavioral change runs into the problem of scaling. Everyone can enjoy sunshine as an individual but adopting a meat-free diet only has the desired effect on the climate if it becomes a mass phenomenon. And because worldwide meat consumption continues to rise, many don't just find the insistence that they should stop eating meat to be morally presumptuous. They also find the logic behind the demand to be flawed.

The government of the United States also claims that ambitious climate policies are unrealistic. President Donald Trump, or at least that part of his staff that attends to climate policy, no longer denies anthropogenic climate change. They merely assert that any measures taken by the U.S. wouldn't have much of an effect anyway. In September, the Environmental Protection Agency rolled back Obama-era automobile emissions limits with the argument that the climate was going to warm by 3 to 4 degrees Celsius anyway. A few thousand megatons of American carbon dioxide more or less wouldn't make much of a difference.

The Goal Is 1.5 Degrees; Realistic Is 4 Degrees

Many climate researchers, such as the paleoclimatologist Gerald Haug of ETH Zurich, likewise believe that warming of 4 degrees is realistic – unless industrialized countries cut carbon dioxide emissions at a revolutionary pace (currently they are increasing their emissions) or methods are found to cleanse the atmosphere of CO2. Such geoengineering technologies have been promised for the middle of this century – no scenario in which humanity reverses the trend makes sense anymore without them. Just how cleansing the air might work remains unclear. Meanwhile, the most reliable instrument for carbon sequestration – namely, the planet's forest cover – shrank at record pace in 2018.

The climate study that attracted the most attention this year was the so-called "Hothouse Earth" paper by a research team led by the American chemist and climatologist Will Steffen ("Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene": Steffen et al., 2018). It addresses climate-change magnification processes that could irreversibly speed up global warming – if, for example, thawing permafrost were to release the vast quantities of methane it stores or if solar energy were to remain in the ocean because it could no longer be reflected by polar ice. Even warming of between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius – a level that will likely be reached at some point between 2030 and 2050 – could trigger such tipping phenomena and transform the world into a "hothouse" era up to 6 degrees warmer than before industrialization.

When asked what an effective fight against climate change might look like, Will Steffen says what most serious researchers are saying: The world has to leave behind the capitalist logic of growth and "get away from the so-called neoliberal economics." Steffen compares the speed with which that has to happen with "wartime footing." In other words, if humanity wants to reduce global warming to a tolerable level, the industrialized North must behave as though it is at war. That would mean that the EU would have to abandon arguments like the recent discussion as to whether it should sink the CO2 emissions of European cars in the 2020s by 30, 35 or 40 percent. Instead, it should ban the internal combustion engine as quickly as possible. It would also have to ration meat consumption and air travel, insulate all aging buildings on the Continent and force people to replace their smartphones with those old Nokias that could run for an entire week on a single charge.

The Climate War Started Long Ago

The climate war that has long since gripped the world is different from all other wars. It isn't just an asymmetric conflict, like the many regional conflicts since that have erupted since 1990. This war is literally atmospheric – the aggression of the greenhouse gases is spread by the atmosphere in space and time. The course of the front line is as predictable as the weather: Years or even decades in advance, we know that temperatures will rise and that more droughts, storms and floods are on their way. However, precise forecasts as to where, when and how severe the attacks will be can only be made days or weeks before they strike.

"Losing Earth," an epic feature – fully 96 pages when printed – published by the New York Times this summer, showed where this war's biggest aggressors are to be found. Author Nathaniel Rich meticulously reconstructed how, at the end of the 1970s, a handful of NASA researchers and policy advisers came to understand that the burning of fossil fuels would usher in a warmer climate. On several occasions between 1979 and 1989, the U.S. came close to introducing efforts to reverse the trend. The rest of the world, as Rich explains, would have gone along. Ultimately, though, anything that might have restricted the American lifestyle and economic dominance was crushed by the petroleum lobby and a few Republican hardliners under Reagan and Bush. It was then that the biggest disinformation campaign in history got its start. The era of post-truth may have come into its own in the personae of President Trump. But it began in the 1980s with the denial, discrediting and twisting of climate change.

Everyone Is Part of It

Ranting about Americans in general and their oil industry in particular is hackneyed and self-righteous. It may not be incorrect, but in 2018, it isn't enough. When Donald Trump announced last year that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, it was rightly seen as an affront to the 196 states that had signed it. At the same time, many seem to forget that there is only a handful of countries currently fulfilling the Paris requirements anyway. The Climate Action Tracker, a page that is partly financed by the German Environment Ministry and dedicated to evaluating global climate policy, lists only seven countries that are currently acting in accordance with the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial times. Those seven countries are Bhutan, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Morocco, Gambia, the Philippines and India.

In an urgent special report released in September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) once again determined that even an average increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius would have dramatic consequences for life on Earth. IPCC scientist Debra Roberts calls the next few years "probably the most important in human history." Mojib Latif of the Helmhotz Center for Ocean Research believes there will be an "extreme deterioration of the security situation on the plant" and "refugee flows of previously unknown scale" if warming isn't "kept significantly under 2 degrees." 

A Climate War for Recognition

Morocco and Gambia – which taken together have 37 million inhabitants – are the only countries on a path that would make warming of no more than 1.5 degrees seem realistic. Countries within the EU are behaving in ways consistent with a 2- to 3-degree average temperature increase. In other words, even if Europe fulfills its most ambitious promises, which it is not currently doing, its behavior is still consistent with a global temperature increase that will likely make climate control impossible.

In this sense, the COP climate conferences, the next of which is to take place in Katowice, Poland, in December, can only partially be seen as negotiations over emission percentages, technologies and timetables. The fact that countries set themselves climate goals they won't meet anyway reinforces the impression that climate change is not happening here and now but in some fictitious, future universe. Still, unrealistic targets are better than none at all.

Climate-conference negotiations are first and foremost about recognition. The question is no longer just how to minimize future damage. The question is also how those who have already caused damage and continue to do so relate to those most affected by it. What kind of compensation can the victims of climate change hope for? Which countries, cities, population groups, creatures and biosystems are entitled to financial, symbolic or at least moral satisfaction? If there were a world climate court, who could be sued there and for what percentage of the disaster?

A World Climate Court

Many Europeans and Americans were puzzled by the enthusiasm with which the delegates of the global South rejoiced at the conclusion of the Paris agreement. It is, after all, an agreement that is nonbinding from both a political and legal perspective, it has not been ratified and doesn't seem at this stage to be anything more than a joint declaration of well-meaning intention. Even greater was the celebration of the states of Oceania over the passage according to which the international community intended to at least "pursue efforts" to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.

A sentence like that is no less than the implicit recognition of guilt in the event humanity doesn't reverse course. The negotiated share of emissions still allowed – 20 percent of future carbon dioxide for China, 18 percent for the U.S. and so on – could actually be used to establish a formula for determining the degree of culpability. Taken in this context, the fact that the representatives of 195 countries formally approved the IPCC Special Report of September 2018 is not insignificant news. Almost all governments around the world, including that of the U.S., have at least indirectly confirmed that they consider the expertise of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to be true. None of them will be able to say later that they weren't aware of the facts.

Pessimism Is Boring

What, then, is there left to hope for? What can be done? If we simply surrender ourselves to the constant barrage of new climate studies, reports and forecasts, we are setting ourselves up for ever greater climate anxiety. These studies are necessary because they reveal new risks and thus underline the plea for humanity to act quickly and radically. But while urging action, they can also diminish hope. After all, we were already acting too slowly under the old calculations to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. And now we learn that climate change can accelerate on its own?!

The belief that an ambitious climate policy is both logistically challenging and tough to communicate is essentially the attitude of all of Germany's political parties – with the notable exception of the Green Party – when it comes to questions pertaining to German cars or German coal. It is only a slight variation on the argument with which – in Nathaniel Rich's telling in "Losing Earth" – John Sununu, chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush, definitively prevented the U.S. from doing anything meaningful about climate change in the summer of 1989. Since then, little has changed in the position taken by deniers and slow-movers. In the meantime, however, humankind has also released more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than in the hundred thousand years that preceded it.

Those who give up now are forgetting how quickly things have happened before in human history. Nations have frequently gone on war footing and their peoples have quickly adapted. The collapse of an old regime – and this is the revolutionary vocabulary French sociologist Bruno Latour uses to speak of today's world – is only really noticed by the mighty and the masses when it actually happens. Nobody can know beforehand what the world will look like after the revolution. In one of the most beautiful essays written to counter climate pessimism, author Rebecca Solnit compares the climate activists of today with 19th century abolitionists and dissidents in the Soviet Gulag. Those who stand up for the right thing don't do so because they think it will work. They do so because it is the right thing to do. Ethical action doesn't have to be scalable to make it ethical.

Translated by Charles Hawley and Daryl Lindsey