Wolfgang Knorr – The Coming Sunsetting of the Climate Issue

What I sense is that the period of blossoming climate emergency declarations and well-meaning intentions for net zero by 2050 spreading like a wildfire, may now be coming to an end.

Wolfgang Knorr is a climate scientist, consultant for the European Space Agency and guest researcher at the Department of Geography and Ecosystem Science, Lund Universit


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Towards the beginning of my university student years I was enjoying the best lectures I ever came across in my career – including those years I served as a university lecturer myself. A hallmark of one professor’s style was that, whenever we started chatting too much, he would lower his voice. Afraid that we might be cut off from crucial information, quietness quickly returned to the lecture hall.

What I sense is that the period of blossoming climate emergency declarations and well-meaning intentions for net zero by 2050 spreading like a wildfire, may now be coming to an end. That we have seen peak climate intention, while the public’s attention will soon be gripped by more immediate and equally frightening threats.

I realised that writing this could be deeply shocking and discouraging for a lot of people – those in the climate movement, and more generally those suffering from a deep rooted fear that this ‘climate thing’ just cannot end well. And this reminded me of my former teacher’s pedagogical trick. If the climate voices are more and more drowned by the general noise of turmoil around the globe, the end effect may ironically be to make the climate threat more, and not less tangible.

Candidates for more immediate threats abound: The war in Ukraine nearing its final crescendo threatening to draw EU and NATO into an incalculable conflict their own cheerful propaganda has never prepared them for. The war in the Middle East spreading, creating more incentives for regional powers to acquire nuclear weapons. The continuing insistence of consecutive US governments with seeing China as an enemy, and not a regional power that has its own security and national interests independent of that of the US. An increasingly self-assertive, nuclear armed North Korea. All that before a background of declining Western hegemony. Contrary to the controlled decommissioning of the Soviet Union as a superpower through active de-escalation sought by its former leadership, the current leadership generation of the declining Western superpower shows no signs of giving in to its fate. So we are facing a turbulent time ahead.

Another, less violent, line of evidence for peak climate intention came from an interview given by Akio Toyoda, the CEO of the world’s largest car maker, Toyota, when he re-stated his company’s determination to stay out of the electric vehicle hype. He predicted notably that EVs will never reach more than 30% of world market share. At the same time Volkswagen, the world’s second biggest automaker now fully betting on going 100% electric, along with other car companies, are facing a slump in EV demand – prompting a popular German car owner’s magazine to declare “nobody wants the German e-cars”.

The level of climate action zeal we have reached collectively may soon peak, but it is still reminiscent of a typical new year’s pledge by a drug addict. Like a chain smoker switching to e-cigarettes, we engage in superficial solutions that after a while lose their shine. We approach the issue through a tunnel vision that forgets that there are literally billions of people out there for which our self-comforting rich-world solutions won’t work anyway. The issue at hand is whether we will ever be able to give up fossil fuels globally, and only a globally reached enforceable consensus agreement can do the job. If the race to this end goal is a marathon, then after 45 years, we have gotten no further than the warm-up exercise before the run. At the latest climate conference that happened last year in Dubai the term ‘fossil fuels’ appeared for the first time in the context of the UN’s climate talks. We are approaching this point in life where we realise that we have been sitting on a couch for too long. Running marathons is simply not for us.

The most important thing will be to accept that. And then we can maybe see that shifting attention away from climate towards immediate questions of war and peace may end up being more relevant for the climate than all the UN climate talks of more than 30 years combined. If the US and EU do not give up their current obsession with seeing in China an enemy and geostrategic rival, given the steady progress China is making towards renewables, it will be the West ending up as the dirty polluter clinging on to fossil fuels. After all, the current geopolitical and financial hegemonic system is intimately tied to fossil fuels.

So as the wisdom of my former professor told him to constrain himself to achieve his goals, the climate movement may not be ill advised to tone down its tactics and just focus on making the threat more tangible. So I was heartened to read that the German “Letzte Generation” radical climate movement announced that it would change tactics. The climate crisis does not need any more explaining, any more lecturing. Once the lecturing stops, people might finally listen.

At a time when Western leaders, fearful of losing control, drive us down dangerous confrontational paths – with other countries, or with the biosphere – disobedience, not attention grabbing, is the call of the moment. When other issues take centre stage, the climate issue will keep looming in the background. The knowledge that we will have all but forgotten about it will make it more, and not less scary. And the scare together with the realisation that nobody is taking care of it, will be the best way of spurring people into action.

P.S.  “In meetings with global activists in recent weeks, my colleagues and I have noticed a shifting emphasis to local climate battles – in the streets, political arenas and courtrooms. The lines between reformists and radicals, and between global and grassroots mobilizers, are blurring, and a new sense of strategic engagement is taking root.”

I might turn out to be wrong with my prediction. The climate issue may stay up high in the public debate, driven by accelerating climate disasters and by the continuing theatre of the UN’s climate talks. I must also confess I am often taken in by the seeming urgency created by mainstream narratives. And therefore I firmly believe in letting go of the idea of progress existing in official conversations, and instead turning our attention towards more immediate issues at hand. As the above quote by Shannon Gibson documents, the climate movement is firmly on track with this.

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