Copenhagen 2009

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Claus Leggewie on Culture and the Climate: “Our Daily Copenhagen”

KWIJerzy Strzelecki
"Another world is possible": Bleak prospects or yet a ray of hope for the Antarctic? (Photo: Jerzy Strzelecki)

8 December 2009

We have green electricity in our outlets, organic products on supermarket shelves and climate-neutral air travel: How does climate change actually impact our culture? The cultural scientist Claus Leggewie talks about responsibility, fair-minded emissions trade and the contributions of cultural work to climate protection.

For a long time, climate change was primarily subject matter for economists and politicians. What role does it play from the cultural point of view?

Leggewie: Let's assume that the heads of government in Copenhagen should resolve incisive measures to minimize greenhouse gas emissions. Then, we would not only need to drastically lower consumption of energy from fossil fuels, but we would also need to tremendously change our daily habits. I call this our daily Copenhagen: a culture of wasting resources is coming to an end. Our empirical research projects and graduate study programmes deal with how its foundations are and what stimuli and barriers there are to change under pressure for change.

How, then, do you study the cultural changes caused by climate change?

By carrying out mainly empirical and also socio-psychological projects that we base on observations, surveys and group discussions. For example, a traditional survey of fishers in the Gulf of California revealed that older respondents had a distinct awareness of the drop in fish stocks and the disappearance of fishing grounds. By contrast, the younger fishers have no idea that the stocks were considerably larger and more diversified just a relatively short while ago. From this, we deduce that different phenomena are assessed differently by different generations. We will now continue work on this topic.

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How is it here in Europe?

It is not only since the discussion about climate change began that we began questioning our consumer behaviour. For example, some strategic milieus buy more regionally produced and more organic products. The huge increase in petrol prices influences the way we deal with resources; we are becoming more frugal. A culture based on personal auto-mobility is forced to change both economically and ethically.

Isn't Germany "green" enough already? We design electric cars, build solar energy plants, the supermarkets offer organic products.

These are good starts. We live in one of the world's most wealthy societies; each of us has immense scope for action. This can be used to change things at the workplace – for example by switching off the computer instead of leaving it on standby – and at home with climate-minded purchasing. In Sweden all consumer goods are now labelled with the "ecological footprint" you leave behind by purchasing them; how much energy was consumed to produce or fly in the object.

So, you are counting on the rationality of free individuals?

Not very much; we're counting on their sense of responsibility. I don't believe that people become "rational" solely through knowledge about climate change, but more once they see it from the viewpoint of (their own or other people's) children and grandchildren. If a driver refuses to give up his gas-guzzler, then I want to hear him to say the following words: "I insist on keeping my recreational tank because, my dear child, I don't give a damn that your life will be worse than mine."

Yet, isn't what we are doing here entirely irrelevant? It's countries like the USA and China that are churning the biggest quantities of CO2 into the air every day...

Copyright: KWI
Political adviser Leggewie: "We need to develop a culture of participation" (Photo: KWI)
... and by us, don't forget. To respond to climate change, we need to develop a culture of participation in our societies as well as completely new global alliances. In the southern hemisphere, local knowledge is very important. This can teach us how to deal consciously with scarce resources.

What about threshold countries like China? Isn't economic development at the top of their priorities?

Climate policy only makes sense if we put together packages beyond the third-worldism of the nonaligned nations that create mutual benefits. Countries like Sudan, now speaker for the G 77, or Pakistan, caught up in a mad cycle of violence, or Bolivia, trapped in an unwinnable internal redistribution battle, can profit considerably from the global emissions trade as long as it is controlled by a global organization. That is what the climate dividend is: nations of the south, starting with India, sell their pollution rights to the CO2-bankrupt north and jump onto the technology of the next, regenerative generation. Then the centres of sustainable development will be located in the Sahara, in southern Asia and in the Andes. A new world is possible.

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You are also a political adviser and will present a scheme against climate change at the conference Culture Futures prior to the climate summit in Copenhagen. Can you tell us about it?

We from the climate advisory council of the German government start with the following background: historically, Europe and the USA are the largest per capita consumers of energy and have to bear the greatest responsibility for climate protection. We must therefore decrease our emissions of greenhouse gases as quickly as possible – in favour of lesser-developed societies. For instance, Burkina Faso should be allowed to produce more emissions, with the responsibility to, in turn, use these to introduce regenerative energy technologies.

What expectations do you have for the climate summit?

I am moderately optimistic. I think we may leave the conference perhaps without any binding agreement, but at least with one strong binding commitment. This will result in the coming years in small conventions or a higher-ranking agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol.

You also call for a readjustment of international relations and are involved with the Goethe-Institut. Can the Goethe-Institut also make a contribution to climate protection?

International relations are not only shaped at summit meetings, but also and especially through networks in civilian society in the various regions. Cultural work can make a very significant contribution to this – for example in North America where the Goethe-Institut makes alliances with local environmental groups and is expanding existing ones in all of Québec as part of the project The Language of Your Environment. Another example is the North America network, which the Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen is setting up on the initiative of the Goethe-Institut with scientists in Montréal, Harvard, Washington, Mexico and California.

The interview was held by Julia Amberger.

Claus Leggewie is the director of the Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen (KWI) and one of nine members of the Academic Advisory Council of the Federal Government on Global Environmental Change. "Climate Culture" – the cultural prerequisites and the social consequences in the adaptation of modern societies to climate change – is one of the interdisciplinary focal points of the work of the KWI. Based on his research, Claus Leggewie published the book Das Ende der Welt wie wir sie kannten (The End of the World as We Knew It) in September with Harald Welzer.
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