Isabel Pitz – Summer 2022. I’m walking with Anton across the meadow behind the house down to the brook. Anton is three years old. Anticipation – we laugh, both are cheerful and lively. Only when we arrive do I see: the brook is empty, it has dried up.

Perplexed, surprised, I do not know what to say. The small bench we have made from an old board and two pieces of wood in the spring is still under the willow. We climb into the stream bed and follow its curves. We climb over branches and crawl under rotten logs that lie across the dry stream bed. Anton plays with the leaves and branches lying there.

I sit down next to him and feel quite heavy-hearted. I think about climate change and my work, climate education. I think about Anton and the effects of climate change. And how unequally climate impacts affect us humans. What would it be like if our water supplies this summer depended on the brook behind our house? I think about how the Sahel continues to expand in Burkina Faso and how rural people have to decide whether they should leave their homes and move to the city. I feel powerless.

In the evening my father-in-law tells me that the brook our village is named after has never dried up. On the contrary, the meadows next to the brook were so wet that his father once deeply sank in with his tractor.

Only in one year did the brook dry up: 1976. That was an exceptionally dry year, and my father-in-law still remembers it well.

It is now the fall of 2023. This was the fourth of five summers in which the brook has temporarily dried up. An exceptional year is now no longer exceptional.

Climate stories – a brief excursion into climate psychology

Climate stories can help us connect with the issue of climate change and make something as big and abstract as climate change personal. It has long been assumed that people need more facts than anything else to take action on climate change. This “information deficit” model is now scientifically outdated[1]. Knowledge does not automatically lead to action. Many other aspects, such as feelings, also play a role.

I live in Europe and experience the climate crisis in Europe. Often the “far-away feeling of the climate crisis” is particularly strong when it comes to climate impacts in countries of the Global South. The feeling that climate change is distant in space, time and society and has little to do with one’s own everyday life is what climate psychologists call “psychological distance”.

People’s stories touch us, they reach the emotional part of our brain. This is where we assess risks, and this part of the brain is also important for our motivation. Pure facts do not reach it as much.[2]

While information alone is not enough to bring about social action, a differentiated and comprehensible knowledge of the climate crisis remains important to understand how, where and when we can take action. The image of a bathtub illustrates the current state of the climate crisis and issues of climate justice.

The bathtub

Let us imagine a bathtub. The bathtub is our Earth’s atmosphere. Water flows from the faucet into the bathtub. The water represents the greenhouse gas CO2 that humans have released into the atmosphere. The water level in our bathtub keeps rising. When there is a crisis, such as an economic crisis, a little less water goes in, but when the crisis is over, the faucet goes back on full blast. Then there is the moment when the bathtub is almost full, it is about to overflow, and we are approaching the dangerous climate crisis with irreversible changes. Now it is not enough to turn off the tap a little. It must be turned off completely. At the Paris Climate Agreement, countries committed to do just that. That means keeping the global average temperature from rising more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. To achieve this, greenhouse gases must be reduced by at least 65% by 2030 and climate neutrality must be achieved by 2040. Are we on track?

Science can calculate how much water will fit in the bathtub before it overflows. The maximum amount of CO2 that humanity is now allowed to release into the atmosphere in order to meet the 1.5-degree target is called the residual CO2 budget. When we are talking about climate justice, we are also talking about how that residual budget is divided up, i.e., “Who gets to release how much CO2?”

Today the bathtub contains all the water, and the atmosphere all the CO2, that humans have been releasing for 170 years. This is because CO2, once released, remains in the atmosphere for several centuries. This is not the case with methane, for example. Although this greenhouse gas is 24 times more potent than CO2, it is removed from the atmosphere by natural processes after about 12 years. That is why the bathtub analogy is also interesting in terms of climate justice: It is not just about the water flowing into the bathtub at this moment, but also about what is already in it. Who filled the bathtub? Who released the greenhouse gases that will now be in the atmosphere for centuries? It’s about the responsibility for historical emissions. Which countries and which groups of people? And what role do multinational companies play?

Where do we stand now? (1)

Instead of turning off the tap, we keep turning it on and even increase the water running. Global CO2 emissions are huge and growing. Let’s have a look at the last few decades. Emissions have been rising steadily. During each global crisis, such as the two oil crises, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Asian crisis, the global financial crises, and the Covid-19 pandemic, emissions fell briefly and then rose rapidly. The crises did not lead to a fundamental change in the global economy. There have been positive developments; for example, the ” CO2 intensity” of the economy has declined. This means that the global economy is using less and less energy to produce the same amount of goods and is emitting less CO2. However, this is not nearly enough to offset the huge overall increase in CO2 emissions from continued economic growth.

Die weltweiten CO2-Emissionen seit 1959 in Milliarden Tonnen. Quelle : Friedlingstein et al 2022 – Global Carbon Project 2022, CC BY 4.0.

In 2022, 82% of the world’s energy was still generated by fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and natural gas. There was more new wind and solar capacity in 2022 than ever before. But the expansion of renewables is happening far too slowly.[3]

The destruction of tropical rainforests, the draining of peatlands and the changes in land use also continue to cause high emissions. On the one hand, this releases the CO2 stored in them, and on the other, it reduces the amount of CO2 that can be absorbed from the atmosphere by forests and other natural sinks.[4]

Continuing high emissions are in stark contrast to the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. Although emissions should now be falling massively, globally we are moving in the opposite direction. Current climate policies are not working. Global CO2 emissions would need to be reduced by an average of 1.4 billion tons of CO2 per year to comply with the Paris Climate Agreement. This is about as much as was reduced in 2020 due to the Covid-19 lockdowns – which illustrates the scale of the action needed.[5]

Who is responsible? (2)

China is now the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, well ahead of the U.S. in terms of annual CO2 emissions. But as the bathtub example showed, it is not just current annual emissions that matter. What matters are all the man-made emissions that have been released since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, as shown in this chart.

The USA has emitted the most CO2 to date. China is the second largest emitter.[6] However, when the emissions of the 27 EU countries are combined, the EU is in second place, behind the US but ahead of China, which falls to third place.[7] Europe and the US together have emitted about half of the greenhouse gases since 1850. They are thus responsible for half of the bathtub that has been filled to date, and for a significant amount of global warming.

Emissions from China and India are also major contributors to global warming. Both countries have large populations. When the data is extrapolated to populations, China, India, and other countries in the Global South almost completely disappear from the list. India, for example, has slightly lower CO2 emissions than Germany, but a population that is now about fifteen times larger than Germany’s. If global aviation and shipping were a country, it would rank 11th among greenhouse gas emitters in the chart.[8]

Brazil and Indonesia are among the largest historical emitters of CO2 due to deforestation. However, emissions during the colonial period were not attributed to the responsible colonial powers, who profited from the deforestation, but to the colonies.[9] Today’s drivers of rainforest destruction include the cultivation of monocultures such as soy for animal feed, palm oil for food or agrofuel production, or fast-growing eucalyptus trees for paper production.  These are raw materials and products that are also imported into and used in Europe on a large scale. Responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions crosses national borders with global trade flows. Most statistics attribute a product’s emissions to the country where it is produced, not the country where it is consumed. For example, a European company may produce a car or smartphone in China. Then some of the products are imported back to Europe, sold and used. This is called “embodied emissions”, i.e. outsourced emissions. This results in a more favorable CO2 balance for countries such as the US or the EU countries. Consequently, the countries of production such as China, India and other countries of the Global South have a higher emissions burden.

Are countries even the right benchmark of climate responsibility? Because within countries, people contribute very differently to climate change. The richest one percent of the world’s population produces more CO2 than the poorest 50 percent.[10] The Global Inequalities 2022 report highlights the extremely unequal distribution of emissions: In 2019, the richest 10% of the world’s population were responsible for over 47% of all greenhouse gases. The poorest half of the world’s population was responsible for just 12% of all emissions.  Higher wealth means higher emissions. The lower income classes in EU countries have already almost reached the Paris climate targets for 2030.[11]   Why is the link between social inequality and emissions so important? Because it helps determine the most equitable and effective climate policy measures. High-income groups, with their high emissions, have much greater scope for saving their emissions than low-income groups.

If climate targets are to be met, the link between social inequality and climate justice also needs to feature much more prominently in the climate debate in Luxembourg.

The “super-rich” are not only the main source of emissions due to their extreme overconsumption. Their investments in companies that produce immense emissions are also critical to the climate. As shareholders, they have a decisive influence on their business models and investment decisions.[12] In 2022, the largest oil companies BP, Shell, Exxon Mobil, Total Energies and Chevron made billions in profits from high oil and gas prices due to the war in Ukraine. Record profits that the companies are still investing in fossil fuels. A growing number of lawsuits are being filed against energy companies around the world to hold them accountable for their role in the climate crisis.

A striking example of climate injustice is the issue of carbon offsets. Companies around the world buy CO2 certificates in order to meet their climate goals on paper and to be able to call their products “climate neutral”. The projects behind the certificates are supposed to save the amount of emissions that the companies emit. Carbon offsetting is a multi-billion dollar market. In 2022, extensive research evaluated offset projects run by Verra. Verra is the world’s largest certifier of CO2 offset projects. The result of the research was that 94% of the alleged forest conservation projects (called REDD+) do not save CO2. Millions of worthless CO2 certificates have been issued over the years.[13] Such carbon offset projects often have serious consequences for local people. For example, indigenous communities have been forced off their land or denied access to forests, water sources and their agricultural lands,[14] as civil society actors from countries in the Global South have criticized since the introduction of REDD+ projects.

Climate injustice means that those who have contributed the least to the climate crisis suffer the most. Droughts, extreme heat waves, floods, hurricanes and rising sea levels hit people in the countries of the Global South particularly hard. The fact that the countries of the Global South suffer more from the consequences of the climate crisis is not only due to their geographical location, but also to their political and economic conditions. The countries of the Global North are better able to adapt to the consequences of climate change because they have greater financial and technological resources. Resources that they have been able to generate through their economic growth, which has also been made possible at the expense of environmental and human rights in the Global South and continues to drive the climate crisis. At the same time, environmental and human rights defenders in many countries are risking their lives. In 2022, 177 climate and environmental activists were killed worldwide, most of them in Latin America. Indigenous communities are particularly vulnerable.[15]

Become empowered and demand climate justice

Climate justice is not just about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The concept of climate justice shows that the climate crisis is a consequence of an unjust global economic system and how climate injustice is closely linked to social inequality. Inequality and injustice that have grown globally through colonial times and continue to this day. This is also reflected in the unequal power structures of international climate policies.[16]

Climate justice addresses the effects of paradigms such as “endless growth” and “development” and fundamentally questions the relationship between humans and nature. Climate justice also exposes the negative impacts of climate policies on people and the environment. As a result, the climate justice perspective can ask the relevant questions for effective climate action. For example, the ecological transformation of transport in Europe cannot just be about changing the way cars are powered – from internal combustion to electric, with massive consequences for lithium mining in countries of the Global South – but rather about how we get to fewer cars and other forms of mobility altogether.

I think of the moment when I sat next to Anton by the dried-up brook. How can we get back into action starting from climate feelings, such as powerlessness, guilt or sadness? How can we empower ourselves in the climate crisis?

Also by clarifying the levels of responsibility. Responsibility for the climate crisis is often diffusely attributed to all people on Earth, or shifted to individuals in their role as consumers. However, political and structural changes are needed to make deep cuts in emission possible.[17]

The perspective of climate justice clearly shows the levels of responsibility for the climate crisis: the climate responsibility of the countries of the Global North, the large differences within social groups and, last but not least, the climate debt of the very wealthy and multinational companies. This helps us to identify the appropriate options for action. There is no single solution to the climate crisis. Where and how we contribute to climate justice can be very different: talking to others about the climate crisis, among friends and family; joining an energy cooperative in your own region; getting involved in your own community; demonstrating and demanding climate justice politically; supporting initiatives and organizations that hold multinational companies accountable for climate justice or advocating for the taxation of great wealth. Or learn more about the concepts of climate justice from authors, activists, and scholars from the Global South.

 


Footnotes:

[1] Sippel, M. (2022), ‘Reden wir besser drüber. Zehn evidenzbasierte Kernprinzipien der Klimakommunikation’, Verzwickt. Vom Umgang mit Nachhaltigkeitsdilemmata, Politische Ökologie, vol. 3, no. 170, Oekom, p. 108.

[2] Sippel 2022, p. 110.

[3] Energy Institute, Statistical Review of World Energy, 2023, p. 3.

[4] These emissions from land use change accounted for nearly 10 percent of total emissions in 2021. They come primarily from rainforest destruction in Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Indonesia. Global Carbon Project, Global Carbon Budget 2022, https://globalcarbonbudget.org/carbonbudget/ (viewed 24 October 2023).

[5] Global Carbon Project, Global Carbon Budget 2022, https://globalcarbonbudget.org/wp-content/uploads/Key-messages.pdf (viewed 24 October 2023).

[6] Evans, S. (2021),  ‘Analysis: Which countries are historically responsible for climate change?’, Carbon Brief, https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-which-countries-are-historically-responsible-for-climate-change/ (viewed 24 October 2023).

[7] In the Global Carbon Project analysis regarding the Global Carbon Budget 2022, the 27 EU countries are listed as one emitter. However, these calculations do not take into account land use changes.

[8] Evans 2021.

[9] Evans 2021.

[10] World Inequality Lab, World Inequality Report 2022, https://wir2022.wid.world/ (abgerufen am 7. Oktober 2023).

[11] World Inequality Lab 2022.

[12] Neckel, S. (2023), ‘Zerstörerischer Reichtum. Wie eine globale Verschmutzerelite das Klima ruiniert’, Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, vol. 68, no. 4, p. 47-56.

[13] Research by the Guardian, Die Zeit, and the investigative journalism platform SourceMaterial, 18 January 2023, www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/jan/18/revealed-forest-carbon-offsets-biggest-provider-worthless-verra-aoe (viewed 24 October 2023).

[14] Guzman, R. (2019), ‘Why the climate strike is a social justice issue (and why it should strike at the core of growing fascism)’, IBON, https://www.ibon.org/why-the-climate-strike-is-a-social-justice-issue-and-why-it-should-strike-at-the-core-of-growing-fascism/ (viewed 24 October 2023).

[15] Global Witness (2023), Almost 2,000 land and environmental defenders killed between 2012 and 2022 for protecting the planet, 13 September 2023, www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/standing-firm/ (viewed 24 October 2023).

[16] On the connection between the climate crisis and colonialism, see:

Sherwood-O’Regan, K. (2022), ‘The climate change and colonisation connection’, Climate Action Network International, https://climatenetwork.org/2022/03/09/what-do-activists-and-ngos-need-to-know-to-be-allies-to-communities-on-the-frontlines-of-climate-change%EF%BF%BC-2/ (viewed 24 October 2023).

Trisos, C., Auerbach, J., Katti, M. (2021), ‘Decoloniality and anti-oppressive practices for a more ethical ecology.’, Nature Ecology and Evolution, no. 5, p. 1205-1212.

Tzekorn, N., Tröger, J., Reese, G. (2022), ‘Klimakrise, Kolonialismus und sozial-ökologische Transformation‘, Handbuch Friedenspsychologie, vol. 26., Marburg. Available online at: https://archiv.ub.uni-marburg.de/ubfind/Record/urn:nbn:de:hebis:04-es2022-0043/View (viewed 24 October 2023).

[17] On the issue of responsibility attribution and concrete recommendations to improve climate education that reflects the political dimension of the climate crisis and climate justice, see Kranz, J., Schwichow, M., Breitenmoser, P., Niebert, K. (2023), ‘Politik – der blinde Fleck der Klimabildung’, Klimafakten, www.klimafakten.de/meldung/politik-der-blinde-fleck-der-klimabildung (viewed 24 October 2023)