Copenhagen 2009

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Climate Protection Without Cultural Change? An Interview with Udo E. Simonis on the debacle of Copenhagen

Udo E. Simonis; © SimonisUdo E. Simonis; © SimonisConsidering all the hopes and expectations people had placed in it, there is no other way of viewing the climate change conference in Copenhagen than as a complete flop. So where do we go from here? An Interview with Udo E. Simonis.

Herr Professor Simonis, at the climate change conference in Copenhagen many people had hoped for a clear signal from the community of nations that would seriously start to pave the way towards the much-vaunted global culture of sustainability. What they actually got was something completely different. The only thing they were able to agree on was a declaration of intent to restrict the rise in temperature to an average of 2 degrees Celsius. Any binding resolutions with which this goal might be achieved were postponed to a later date. In view of such indifference do you see any reason at all for hope?

Confronted with the debacle of Copenhagen – the meticulously planned climate change conference at which the global players attending seemed more like a horde of ham actors – one would be right in assuming that a cloud of desolation is now about to descend, a plague of apathy and depression, a feeling of impotence, because politics no longer seems to be capable of actually achieving anything of consequence.

On the other hand it might also be the case that due to the totality of failure, to this crushing defeat inflicted on world politics, we might have slipped into a new mode of thinking– a kind of pre-revolutionary mood. A mood in which it has now become clear (or clearer) that from now on the stakes are much higher when it comes to adapting, to the increase in international conflicts, to our continued territorial and biological existence, in a word, even to life and death itself. Revolutions, as we all know, usually provide a choice of two roads to go down: either the road to fundamental crisis or to the opening up of real opportunities, to total collapse or the quest for a new equilibrium

The urge for growth outweighs the striving for justice

The German Federal Chancellor, Angela Merkel, warned us not to play down the results of Copenhagen. The financial crisis proved that in times of great need the global community is capable of taking joint action. Does the climate crisis then still not represent a time of great need?

The financial crisis primarily entailed supporting the short-term stability of the economy and the safeguarding of continued national economic growth. The climate change crisis is more a case of ensuring long-term ecological stability and justice when it comes to the international allotment of adaptation requirements.

Seen from the historical point of view the urge for growth has (almost) always outweighed the striving for justice, growth was in fact a substitute for justice. However, if climate change were to be viewed as an existential problem of stability and justice – and therefore as a climate disaster, then the thinking on economic growth might start to change and its limitations might become clearer. There might then be an ecological “greening” of the global economy – a “Global Green New Deal”, so to speak.

A common theory with which people often try to explain why global environmental politics has made such modest progress is that the political players involved are thwarted by “economic interests”. These days any newspaper reader of average intelligence knows that there is really no alternative to the establishment of an effective global environmental policy – no matter how important an individual country’s own business interests are. What does this discrepancy between knowing about the problem and taking action stem from?

According to philosopher, Peter Sloterdijk, people are “future atheists”, they refuse to believe what they know to be true. I see the problem in a more political light. First of all the time factor has to be taken into account – a political approach that pursues business interests does not require very much time, whereas an environmental policy that strives to solve the problem of climate change requires long-term strategies. Then there is the power factor – the power and influence stemming from an economy based on fossil fuels is still much greater than the power and influence generated by the renewable energies. As climate change has to a great extent been brought about by fossil fuel emissions, we have to put an end to their dominance – the age of fossil fuels has to be overcome. Furthermore there is also the question of institutions – when it comes to representing ecological and economic interests there is no parity – not in Germany, not in Europe and quite definitely not on a global level.

Lack of global governance

Social scientists have given up relying on politics and have now taken to setting their hopes on cultural change from the bottom up. In your opinion what might one expect from society restructuring its approach to ecological issues?

As I see it, the main problem is a lack of global governance. It is highly improbable that an individual will be able to save our climate, if the community of nations has already failed to do so. When confronted with all the dustbins overflowing with rubbish in our streets and backyards, not to mention the poverty to be seen everywhere, it is hard to imagine that society has in fact already undertaken restructuring measures on ecological issues. Nevertheless there is still an ecologically particularly dedicated element of society that has developed an ever-growing international network. It is this “global village”, getting bigger every day on the internet – digital grass-roots networking, so to speak - that in fact just might be able to achieve what global politics so far has failed to do. First of all, however, this “village” also has to become home to the other players. Not just the environmental associations, but also local municipal authorities, big business, trade unions – in fact to a major part of society. Only then will we be able to save our environment, to live in harmony with nature and climate and to establish a culture of sustainability.

Udo E. Simonis is professor emeritus in the field of environmental politics research at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (Social Science Research Centre Berlin) and since 1991 he has co-published the “Jahrbuch Ökologie” (Ecology Yearbook). His main research focuses on international environmental politics.

Andreas Vierecke
conducted the Interview. He is one of the two directors of the Südpol-Redaktionsbüro Köster & Vierecke and editor-in-chief of the Zeitschrift für Politik.

Translation: Paul McCarthy
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
Januar 2010

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