The Elders

Guest blog
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Why is climate action a justice issue of our time?

As the final round of climate negotiations before Paris begin today in Bonn, John Schellnhuber, founding Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research argues that if tomorrow won’t take care of itself, we need to take responsibility for shaping it today.

“Most people cannot imagine what is going to happen. Tragically, when they eventually can, it might be too late to turn the tide.”

Earth from space (Credit: NASA Earth Observatory (CC by 2.0)

What is the climate crisis? Obviously, we’re heating up our planet. Because we emit greenhouse gases by burning tremendous amounts of coal, oil and gas. This is the short story of the problem, in terms of physics.

"Today is all that really counts; tomorrow is supposed to take care of itself. This is what I once called the Dictatorship of Now. So climate action is, above all, a justice issue across time and space."

Yet there is more to this crisis, much more, and this is related to ethics. Humankind is destroying the Earth by plundering the past, namely the vast underground energy reserves generated by hundred millions of years of sunshine. This exploitation drives the consumerism of the present. For future generations, and especially for the poor among them, there will be nothing left but waste and heat and poison. Today is all that really counts; tomorrow is supposed to take care of itself. This is what I once called the Dictatorship of Now. So climate action is, above all, a justice issue across time and space.

When negotiators are assembling, now in Bonn and soon in Paris at the UNFCCC World Climate Summit, they need a powerful democratic mandate to overthrow that dictatorship. And they need to realise that it is in their national interest to defend the common good of humanity – the heavens above us, currently used as a garbage dump.

However, public debate so far is characterised by a threefold distance to the climate crisis: First, there is the distance of time, since the most severe impacts are going to strike only in the far future. Second, there is the distance of space, as many dire consequences of global warming are being felt already, yet predominantly in tropical regions, irrelevant to decision-makers in Europe or the US. And third, there is the cognitive distance.

A world entirely beyond our experience

The climate crisis is unprecedented. Never in the history of human civilisation did temperatures rise as rapidly as they do today. 14 out of the 15 warmest years on record all happened within the 21st century, even though this century is still young. 2015 is already projected by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to break all previous records. So we’re about to enter a new global environmental domain, undoubtedly full of risks – but this world is entirely beyond our experience. Therefore, most people cannot imagine what is going to happen. Tragically, when they eventually can, it might be too late to turn the tide.

Science could save the day, as it is able to make reasonable projections into the future based on the laws of nature. But here is the crux: the wider public would need to trust expert knowledge that it does not really understand.

Sea-level rise clearly illustrates this dilemma. Currently, melting glaciers and thermal expansion of the oceans dominate that rise. Yet just a few more decades of unabated emissions can also trigger processes in Greenland and Antarctica which will likely lead to ice loss continuing for thousands of years, even when warming has stopped already. The mighty ice sheets, storing water equivalent to many metres of global sea-level rise, are tipping elements in the Earth system. And we already started to push them.

Melting ice at Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon, Iceland
Melting ice at Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon, Iceland

When the ice masses melt, their gravitational pull declines and the released waters largely flow from the poles to the tropics, where the developing countries are! This is exactly the part of our planet where people have least contributed to global greenhouse gas emissions and have least profited from the extraction of fossil fuels. Moreover, it is the region where people have the least means to protect themselves, and where they have the least political power to influence international climate mitigation policies. The same is true for certain weather extremes that are exacerbated by climate change – these, too, hit hardest in the poor countries of the South. Thus, man-made climate is all about fairness – and unfairness.

The need to look beyond the here and now

But don't we seem to always have more pressing issues at hand, like the financial crisis in the run-up to the infamous COP15 in Copenhagen, and now the refugee surge sweeping into Europe? We do have a moral obligation to help those who are in need here and now. However, this help comes with the responsibility to look beyond the here and now. For instance, climate stabilisation is imperative for avoiding many more shattered livelihoods and refugees in the future. The US military names global warming a threat multiplier, and not for nothing. Existing conflicts between social groups or about natural resources are amplified by droughts or yield reductions, as a number of recent studies show.

Somali refugee at UNHCR camp in Ethiopia, having fled drought and famine
Somali refugee at UNHCR camp in Ethiopia, having fled drought and famine

While a rich Western democracy might have the means of being able to cope with this kind of additional stress, many poor countries probably cannot. As tomorrow will most definitely not take care of itself, we need to take responsibility for shaping it today - in order to ensure a fair future for all. The Paris climate summit can mark a historic beginning. If we choose so.

John Schellnhuber is also co-chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change and a member of the German and US National Academies of Sciences.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation.

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