Cooperation means trust. With the US leading two defacto proxy wars, in Ukraine and Israel, and mobilising NATO against China, how are we to get the world to cooperate concerning climate change?
Wolfgang Knorr is a climate scientist, consultant for the European Space Agency and guest researcher at the Department of Geography and Ecosystem Science, Lund University
“Not enough is being done”. Almost all of climate activism still operates under the premise that decision makers need to be convinced to do “more” to stop humanity’s accelerating race into a full-blown climate catastrophe. What is much more seldom asked, though, is what will happen if one day “enough” was actually being done? What is this “enough” that we are really heading for? Or put differently, what is the direction into which declared climate-aware politics are pushing us? Here, Germany offers a particularly interesting case study. Not because Germany is doing particularly well in addressing the climate crisis – there is no principle difference in ambition between its social-democrat, green, and liberal governing coalition, and for example Britain led by the fossil-fuel industry loving Tory party. More than thirty years after signing the UN convention that promises to prevent ‘dangerous climate change’, one continues to expand oil and gas exploration, the other bulldozes villages for the expansion of coal mines.
Lack of progress can often be down to political or legal constraints, or a general lack of willingness in the wider public to embark on any sort of slightly radical course away from the status quo. It was notably the Green Party economics minister of the federal state of North-Rhine Westphalia who gave the ‘green’ light for the highly symbolic destruction of the village of Lützerath for coal expansion, against strong resistance of the climate movement. Pictures of Greta Thunberg detained and led away by police went around the world. But prior contracts and party politics may have forced the minister’s hand. What I am interested in is not so much progress around climate action, but the moral setting and political compass that manifests itself in public statements and decision making.
Take for example the Green minister’s justification: the country needs the energy produced specifically by that part of the coal mine that would become accessible through the destruction of the village. It is an understandable statement, but it concerns a decision taken against the will of the majority of her own party, who had hoped a more rapid phase-out of coal would save Lützerath. And it is also dubious on the factual side. As a comparison of several studies shows, it only applies if Germany does not seriously ramp up its investment in renewable energy between now and 2030, to which it is essentially obliged to do under the Paris Agreement.
Germany is the country with by far the politically strongest Green Party anywhere, which at the moment sports no less than five ministers in the federal government, including foreign affairs, economy and agriculture. Its roots are found in the 1968 student uprising against authoritarian and neo-nazi structures in post-war Germany, and in the environmental and pacifist movements of the 1970s and 1980s, including opposition against nuclear power and nuclear armament. Once a fringe movement and attacked as ‘extremist’ by the political right, they are now part of the establishment.
So what can we learn about what happens when an expressed pro-environmental movement enters the corridors of power? Looking at the track record of Green ministers in the German federal government as a case study, the answer does not bode well for the future of climate politics: self-righteousness, and a tendency for authoritarianism.
When in May 2022, India stopped its wheat exports to protect its domestic population from hunger, explicitly offering direct negotiations with countries in particular need, the Green agriculture minister Cem Özdemir sharply criticised the decision. This not only displays Özdemir’s staunch belief in neo-liberal market fundamentalism – food should be allocated to the highest bidder – but also a deep disrespect for the right of other countries to conduct policies according to their own moral compass. (Consider that about 17% of the world’s population live in India, against 1% for Germany.) This is a particularly relevant case given that a serious global food crisis is one of the most feared consequences of climate destabilisation.
While his stance can hardly be called a diplomatic blunder given that it was shared by the assembled G7 colleagues, his party colleague, the German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, has by now become widely known for her disregard of the rules of diplomacy. One of her most famous blunders, when she called China’s head of state a ‘dictator’, is particularly disrespectful of more than a billion people given that in a recent survey, as much as 82% of respondents in China considered their country democratic, against 63% in Germany, and 49% in the US.
The German Green Party economics minister and deputy head of government, Robert Habeck, on the other hand, has drawn intense criticism in Germany for his authoritarian stance against local residents, businesses, and environmental groups on the tourist island of Ruegen threatened by his hasty decision to build several liquified natural gas terminals to make up for lost Russian gas imports. When a lawsuit threatened his LNG-terminal project on Ruegen, instead of respecting the legal process, he accused those opposing his project of siding with Putin.
His latest move has been a videoed speech posted on Twitter (and reposted in three languages by the Dublin embassy) in which he explained his views on how Germany should confront antisemitism by those supporting the Palestinian side in the recent war between Israel and the Hamas, following Hamas’ attack and mass murder of Israeli civilians. While much of the German press and the leading German member of Fridays for Future, Lisa Neubauer, applauded him, a closer look at his words reveals more authoritarian tendencies. A very common one in Germany is that he elevates support for Israel’s policies to a German constitutional founding principle, despite of the fact that this cannot be found in the actual constitution, and the wide-spread suspicion that historically, back in the 1950s and 60s, the staunch pro-Israeli stance of German politics had been more of a self-motivated entry ticket into the circle of respected nations when Germany’s reputation was still heavily stained by recent memories of the holocaust. As noted by the left-leaning newspaper ‘nd’, however, the most serious aspect of his speech is that he single handedly declares fundamental human rights of protesting Muslims to be conditional on supporting his government’s foreign policy stance, a stance that is seriously impacted by double standards. In his speech, rather late than early, he deplored the dead children in Gaza, but fails to mention that his own government refused to support even the temporary ceasefire demanded by the UN.
Whether these last examples are related to the climate crisis or not is a question of how we define or perceive the threat from planetary overheating. Most of the discussion so far tends to be about carbon budgets and net zero, energy policies, or the impact of extreme climate events. I believe that this is too narrow a view, and we need to take into account the very stability of the global social, economic and political fabric. What it shows is that once we enter a phase where the climate crisis is eventually seen as a real, not just a declared, emergency, the chances are that the policies implemented will be characterised by the same kind of self-righteousness and authoritarianism that we are now seeing around the Western world, not only in Germany – but this time super-charged.
The problem is that confronting the climate crisis will require mutual respect, humility, and a willingness to collaborate – including, which seems to be the hardest one, collaboration with one’s own population. Political elites are increasingly moving in the opposite direction, and thus the chances of reigning in accelerated global heating look increasingly dim. Questioning authority, rather demanding “more than not enough”, should therefore be the rallying cry for climate activism in a world where not only the climate system is increasingly destabilising.