Tag Archives climate change

COVID-19 | Lessons from the COVID-19 crisis for climate change politics by Murat Arsel

COVID-19 and climate change bear striking – and worrying – similarities and differences. Both are characterized by high uncertainty, but while COVID-19 has been identified as an immediate threat and action has been taken despite the absence of comprehensive knowledge, uncertainty has been touted as impeding concerted efforts to transform energy systems to combat climate change. The global economic system has strongly contributed to our failure to make radical changes. A different system – one that is not so fundamentally focused on maximizing profits over all other concerns – could have been better placed to make the undeniably painful economic adjustments we are forced to make, both before the emergence of COVID-19 and to prevent a catastrophe arising due to climate change. While both crises require dramatic societal transformations, we need to be aware of the potential negative political consequences of declaring them as emergencies.

One thing is certain about COVID-19: we simply do not know enough. Some aspects about it are simply unknown, on others we have conflicting information. Scientists are asked to take shortcuts from their rigorous methods and to offer their ‘best guess’ on hugely consequential questions. Policy makers then take decisions within a fog of uncertainty since experts have also argued that doing nothing is the absolute worst option. This is a terrifying situation for us all, but it is not entirely without precedent.

While the threat of COVID-19 might seem unique, there are some interesting parallels between this threat and that of climate change. At a general level, neither is simply a ‘natural’ phenomenon. This is not to suggest – as some have – that they are a ‘hoax’. Viruses exist, mutate, and infect ‘naturally’. Similarly, the climate of the earth shows variation due to various factors outside of human influence. But what imbues both COVID-19 and contemporary climate change with a catastrophic potential is the political economic context in which they are developing. More specifically, it is global capitalism that takes what is ‘natural’ and weaponizes it against humanity.

In the case of climate change, the problem is not that humans are extracting natural resources in order to secure their livelihoods. The manner in which this extraction is carried out, its continuous intensification and, most importantly, the extraction of resources not necessarily to meet the human need to exist and to thrive, but rather to fulfil the need of capitalism to continuously expand, is what transforms extraction into a planet-altering force captured in the concept of the Anthropocene.

Similarly, the astonishing spread of COVID-19 could not have been possible without the incredible powers of global capitalism. The virus has spread so quickly and so effectively on the back of a global structure that transports goods, humans and – let us not forget – ideas at almost magical speeds. But it is important to not fall into the trap of blaming connectivity and mobility for the spread of the virus but the underlying economic structures that made combatting it so difficult and painful. While such a pandemic could also occur under a different global economic order, the precarity of not just individuals or classes but even some of the richest and technologically sophisticated economies is what makes COVID-19 so dangerous. A different system – one that is not so fundamentally focused on maximizing profits over all other concerns – could have been better placed to make the undeniably painful economic adjustments we are forced to make.

The parallels between climate change and coronavirus do not end there. Climate scientists – those in the natural as well as the social sciences – have long been arguing that if drastic changes are not made to the way we produce and consume, in other words to the way we live, we can expect apocalyptic changes to global ecosystems. When these materialize, their impacts are likely to be just as and probably even more colossal than the toll that COVID-19 will have exacted. Yet scientists’ pleas for radical action have been rebuffed on two grounds – we do not know enough, and dramatic curbs to economic activities are fundamentally against public interest. The effectiveness of these arguments has been far greater in the case of climate change than in COVID-19! As the COVID-19 crisis shows, these two grounds have not prevented governments across the world from acting in response to the COVID-19 threat.

Can we expect a change in attitude to climate change politics once the COVID-19 crisis is over? That is certain though it is possible to expect two dramatically different responses which will depend on how, in the aftermath of COVID-19, societies around the world come to understand the now evolving response. If the response to COVID-19 comes to be seen as an overreaction or a form of mass delusion, this would have massively negative effects on ongoing efforts to respond to climate change. That would mean not only that scientific authorities – not just the epidemiologists or immunologists but the entire enterprise itself – will be discredited, opening the door to an ever-intensifying challenge that will dwarf the anti-vaccination movement. Worse still, such an impression will embolden the Trumps and Bolsanaros of the world (unfortunately not a rare breed!) to challenge and pull back all too necessary measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

However, if the experts as well as politicians and policy makers who follow them are vindicated in making draconian changes (and if those who do not do so are vilified), we can expect a new era in which scientific authority is once again celebrated and valorised (rather than challenged by baseless arguments as has been the case with the anti-vaccination movement). It can also be expected that the spectre of an ecological apocalypse will be taken more seriously, bringing it with it meaningful socio-economic and cultural transformations to adapt to and mitigate climate change.

Authoritarianism creeping in through the back door

Implementation of dramatic societal transformation in response to anticipated catastrophes might at first be seen as an entirely positive outcome. But it is important to remember that all appeals to emergency, such as the declaration of a state of emergency, regardless of how justified they are, contain within them the seed of authoritarianism. A call to urgent action is almost by definition a call to silence dissent, to short-circuit deliberative democracy and to privilege the opinion of a select few over all others.

While rare, the climate movement has long had an authoritarian streak as demonstrated by this statement by no less than the developer of the Gaia hypothesis, James Lovelock: “We need a more authoritative world. We’ve become a sort of cheeky, egalitarian world where everyone can have their say. It’s all very well, but there are certain circumstances – a war is a typical example – where you can’t do that. You’ve got to have a few people with authority who you trust who are running it”[1]. A few years ago, such statements could have been considered fringe opinions intended more for provocation than for actual implementation. With countless leaders and scientists comparing COVID-19 to a war, there is genuine reason to be actively worried about ending up in a situation where climate change too becomes securitized in this manner.

This brings us back to the question of uncertainty and authority. While our knowledge of climate change – how it works, what its impacts are and how we can reverse it – are incomparably better than what we know about COVID-19, the socio-economic and ecological decisions that need to be taken are far from obvious if we are to avoid an economic crisis similar to the one brewing at the moment. How can we transition towards a carbon neutral economy? Which fossil fuel reserves need to be designated as ‘unburnable’? Where do we restore ecosystems and to what state? How, if at all, do we prevent flooding of cities and towns? What are the ecological tipping points and how can we prevent them if they remain largely unseen? These and countless other questions require not only authoritative scientific input but genuine deliberative discussion as well.

No society – regardless of how extensive its education and research attainment – is ready for this challenge. This is because the model of economic development that has dominated since World War II has created a relationship with science that Ulrich Beck has brilliantly described as “organized irresponsibility”[2], in which global capitalism has powerfully capitalized on the explosion of productivity enabled by modern science and technology while brushing under the metaphorical carpet its risks and uncertainties. Debates about the safety of genetically modified foods and nuclear power were harbingers of a brewing crisis of how science and technology can be socialized. COVID-19 is a stark reminder that the challenge remains great. If it is not addressed, we can expect many more war-like situations, not least in relation to climate change.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2010/mar/29/james-lovelock
[2] https://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/jan/06/ulrich-beck

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.

74804489_10163151698620144_409485347391537152_oAbout the author:

Murat Arsel is Professor of Political Economy of Sustainable Development. His research and teaching focus on the tensions between nature, capitalism, and emancipatory socio-economic development. Additional details of his work can be found at www.marsel.me

Image Credit: Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Blame games won’t help us address the climate crisis by Lize Swartz

The climate crisis is forcing us to rethink our relationship with the world around us and the effect of our own actions (or inaction) on this massive collective action problem. Blame games are becoming a dangerous diversion tactic used to deny responsibility for our own role in the crisis by blaming others for causing it, writes Lize Swartz. Recent developments in the Netherlands and beyond reveal just how far we still have to go to acknowledge the climate crisis as a collective action problem and to rethink our own role as natural resource users in addressing the crisis.

Crises are often associated with the polarization of different interest groups through the politicization of crises and crisis responses due to the uncertainty they cause and the inevitability of change they come to signify. The global climate crisis is no different: it is arguably the biggest collective action dilemma we as humankind have had to face, generating massive uncertainty about the impacts of a changing climate, and making it clear that radical change is necessary. We now have to come to terms with the fact that we have a very limited time in which to reverse the effects of the damaging development trajectory we have collectively subscribed to over the last centuries on the climate—something we are very hesitant to do due to the implications of such radical change for our comfort and quality of life.

As a result, we have started trying to place the blame on each other in order to avoid having to take action ourselves due to the refusal to acknowledge the effect of our own actions on the creation and exacerbation of the crisis. The recent protests in The Hague highlighted cleavages in society resulting from polarizing discourses of who’s to blame that will undermine efforts to address the crisis. Over the past few months, The Hague has become a political battlefield as groups have marched to the political hub of the country to make their voices heard in the struggle to find solutions to the climate crisis on Dutch soil that seems to have paralyzed the country’s political leadership. When Dutch politicians suggested curbing agricultural and building activities to reduce nitrogen emissions, farmers first rolled in en masse on their tractors, followed by those working in the construction sector. Their message was clear: we will not be made scapegoats—others are equally or more guilty and should also have their activities limited. They felt victimized and proceeded to blame other parties for causing the crisis. The blame game seems to be a vicious cycle of receiving, denying and passing on blame.

Similarly, a recent article in a Dutch newspaper claimed that international universities are climate unfriendly because international students take intercontinental flights several times a year to visit their families. The author compared their travel patterns with those of European students, who ‘only’ took intracontinental flights to other European countries for the same reason. And the split between the ‘vegan’ and ‘meat lover’ camps, as if they are opponents in some figurative battle, is well known.

These examples make clear that the climate crisis is polarizing especially those societies discussing it. Through what has become somewhat of a herd mentality, it has become very easy to compare our own behaviour to that of others, finding ourselves superior (we recycle, we don’t own cars) and thus pressuring others to do the same, or simply refusing to acknowledge that our own behaviour is problematic and blaming others because we don’t want to change. The more pressing the problem becomes, and the more apparent the need for radical and immediate change becomes, the more demands seem to be placed on others to change their behaviour.

Collective action needs to move beyond global negotiations

Elinor Ostrom argued in 2010 that climate change is a collective action problem and that no single state should shoulder the burden of having to address it alone (Ostrom 2010). Collective action problems are defined as problems that require a collective effort to address them; individual responses based on individual interests undermine the ability of the collective to address the problem and have negative consequences (Ostrom 2010). The image of two donkeys tugging on a rope comes to mind. When the donkeys attempt to move in opposite directions, the rope becomes taut and neither of them can move. When they move in the same direction, alongside each other, there is no resistance and both can achieve their objective – to graze in peace.

We need the same kind of mentality when attempting to address the climate crisis, and recognizing that climate change is a collective action problem is a first step. Although a strong institutional response is necessary to lead international efforts to combat climate change, we should acknowledge the need for a combined institutional and individual response. Ostrom argued that states should collectively address the crisis, but we as consumers and producers are just as responsible for doing so.

Importantly, before blaming industry for emissions and states for failing to discipline industries, we need to better understand and acknowledge the way in which our own seemingly insatiable appetites for material products and consumables, including for food and water, are feeding our fossil fuel addiction and affecting increased production and emissions. The climate crisis, which fundamentally trails back to our relationship with the world around us and our problematic individual and collective claim on it, demands a different way of life. We will need to take a long, hard look at ourselves and our identity as consumers in order to understand our contribution to the crisis, and we will have to acknowledge this and then collectively define our respective roles in addressing the crisis together. The last thing we need is to stand divided instead of united.

Ostrom, E. (2010) ‘A multi-scale approach to coping with climate change and other collective action problems’, Solutions.

Image Credit: Andol on Wikimedia

16177487_1348685531818526_4418355730312549822_oAbout the author:

Lize Swartz is a PhD researcher at the ISS focusing on water user interactions with sustainability-climate crises in the water sector, in particular the role of water scarcity politics on crisis responses and adaptation processes.


EADI/ISS Series | Solidarity, Peace, and Social Justice – will these values prevail in times of fundamental threats to democracy? By Jürgen Wiemann

In today’s world of constantly rising inequality, increasingly authoritarian governments and anti-immigration sentiments, solidarity, peace and social justice seem to be more out of reach than ever. In a joint series by the EADI and ISS in preparation for the 2020 General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”, Jürgen Wiemann, EADI vice president, reflects on the possibilities we have to preserve these values.

Widening gaps

Solidarity, peace and social justice – the title for the 2020 EADI/ISS General Conference – are foundations and goals for a good society, a functioning democracy and for a global system that guarantees peace and facilitates international cooperation. Yet, our world seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Peace is no longer guaranteed when the global order established after the Second World War is not only attacked from outside but – even more disturbing – undermined from within; solidarity is waning with rising levels of immigration to Europe and the US, provoking resentment by those who already feel left behind; finally, social justice has become a utopian goal in a world of constantly rising inequalities.

The widening gap between incomes and wealth of the rich and the squeezed middle class is already perceived as a threat to democracy in Western countries. With political will, income inequality could be alleviated by progressive taxation. What may be even more relevant is the cultural alienation between the old middle class threatened by the negative consequences of globalisation, and the new middle class of professionals, academics and managers who benefit from globalisation and modernisation in general. Educated people see their incomes rise with a widening range of job opportunities through the internet and international job markets. They feel enriched by other cultures and exotic dishes and tend to acclaim openness and immigration. Their cosmopolitan tastes and lifestyles let them look down upon ordinary, less educated people who see their skills devalued by new technologies and new modes of production and distribution until their jobs are finally replaced by machines or outsourced to low-wage countries.

The widening economic and cultural divide between the old and the new middle class brings authoritarian populists to the fore who emphasise the resentment and anger of those left behind, reaffirming their perception of unfair treatment and even neglect by the elites and the media. Obviously, the populists do not have a plan to alleviate the economic distress of their constituency. On the contrary, their role is to defend the existing inequalities by exploiting the widespread resentment against the threats from globalisation. However, economic nationalism will not alleviate the plight of their electorate but will jeopardise jobs and compress incomes of the old middle class even further.

Whatever the medium and long-term economic effects of the nationalist policy agenda will be, it threatens to undermine the post-war global order from within. This would have dire consequences not only for the world economy, but also for international cooperation and global governance. It opens the door for other authoritarian governments to pursue their illiberal agenda and what they perceive as national interest without respect for their neighbours’ interests and the rest of the world.

From the end of history to the end of Western hegemony

After the Second World War, a global order was erected in order to prevent another world war and enhance peaceful international cooperation through trade, foreign direct investment and development cooperation. It was based on a set of values and principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Charter. An array of international organisations was founded to implement the principles of peaceful international cooperation.

Trade liberalization and market access to the United States helped the war-damaged economies of Germany, Japan and the rest of Western Europe to recover faster than had been expected at the end of the war. Since the 1960s, a handful of smaller South East Asian countries implemented a development strategy of export-oriented industrialisation which let them catch up with the West within one generation, in terms of both income and technological capacity. Their success was celebrated as East Asian Miracle. In those days already, American and European industries felt the pressure from labour-intensive industries in South East Asia and Japan. Yet, in the 1970s, Western economies were more affected by two oil shocks and the ensuing stagflation. On both sides of the Atlantic the answer to that challenge was to stimulate economic growth through unleashing market forces, i.e. the neoliberal agenda.

That was the beginning of globalisation unchained, with China embracing capitalism in 1978 and copying the East Asian model of export-oriented industrialisation on a large scale. For two decades, economists and international financial institutes like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund took the rapid rise of China, India and other Asian emerging markets as proof of the effectiveness of the Washington Consensus that prescribes trade liberalisation for goods, services and capital. Millions of Chinese, Koreans, Indians, Indonesians etc. have been lifted out of poverty in one generation.

The complementary stress for the industrialised countries resulting from increasing imports of ever more sophisticated products from East Asia – job losses, abandoned industries, declining communities and regions – was vindicated by economists as necessary industrial restructuring that would eventually make everybody better off.  Today, we realise that this was an unfounded promise: the incomes of the old middle class have stagnated since decades while the rich have enjoyed increasing incomes and wealth. The middle-class squeeze was especially strong in the US and the UK, two countries whose governments had embraced neoliberal economic policies earlier and with more consequence than continental Europe. In both countries, populists have either taken over the government or gained a decisive influence on its course, undermining the European Union and the post war global order.

Responding to Environmental Threats

These trends do not forebode well for international cooperation and global governance which is more urgent than ever when it comes to responding to the challenges of climate change, extinction of species, overexploitation and excessive pollution of the oceans and other global or regional ecological disasters. A growing world population aspiring to the lifestyles of the middle classes in the West, is already trespassing several planetary boundaries. However, authoritarian populists routinely question scientific evidence and threaten media coverage of scientific research that aims at preparing the public for the required changes in lifestyles, for increasing taxation of carbon dioxide and for sharing responsibility for the global commons with other countries.

Optimists believe that human ingenuity and creativity will produce technological solutions to the global challenges. However, there is a risk that the avalanche of new technologies, especially artificial intelligence, will not only replace manual labour, but also jeopardise a wide range of professional jobs so that the fabric of industrial societies will be undermined faster than policies can be developed to contain their impact. There are more disturbing aspects associated with revolutionary new technologies, such as the manipulation of public opinion through social media, the possibility of totalitarian governments to control and suppress any opposition with new surveillance technologies, and new forms of warfare, cyberwar and fully autonomous weapon systems, may threaten peace and security. One can only hope for creative policies and agreements both on the national and the global level for containing the disruptive consequences of all these new technologies.

Conclusion: The challenge for the development community

The current erosion of the global order in general and the European Union in particular, is alarming, especially for those committed to development research and cooperation. It is our interest to work for improving the climate for effective international cooperation and a fair sharing of responsibilities for managing the various challenges between rich and poor countries and rich and poor in each country. The recent challenges to political stability and economic prosperity need to be comprehended by the community of development scholars, development policy makers and practitioners in order to focus their teaching and research and to adjust development cooperation to the changing environment.

At this critical moment in history, the development community must make up its mind: Quite a few scholars and activists have been, with good reasons, critical of globalisation and neoliberal policies that aggravate inequalities everywhere and threaten the global commons. Yet, we should reject the fundamental questioning of the old global order and economic globalisation that is gaining ground in the West. Authoritarian populists are not concerned about the problems of developing countries. Their dream of the good old times when White Supremacy justified uninhibited exploitation of developing countries and their natural resources allowing for relatively comfortable lifestyles even for the middle classes in the West, is opposed to any effort at improving the living conditions in the Global South while respecting the ecological limits to growth. Therefore, we will have to defend the principles and institutions of the global order against the assault from the authoritarian international in order to keep the door open for the reforms and improvements necessary in every country and in the global arena for achieving the SDGs before 2030.

This is the first article in a series launched by the EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and the ISS in preparation for the 2020 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. It was also published on the EADI blog.

Image Credit: EarthDayPicture

About the author:


Jürgen Wiemann is economist, EADI Vice President and chair of the Subcommittee of the EXCO on Conferences. From 1999 to 2011, he had been the German delegate to EADI’s Executive Committee. Before his retirement in 2011, he had been deputy director of the German Development Institute (DIE) and advisor on trade (policy) and development (cooperation) to the German Ministry for development .

Reclaiming control of Indonesia’s oceans by Salena Tramel

Reclaiming control of Indonesia’s oceans by Salena Tramel

At once unexplored and overexploited, the oceans surrounding Indonesia represent neoliberal development’s final ...

It’s time for flying to become the new smoking by Dorothea Hilhorst

The recently published IPCC report paints a grim picture of the future if carbon emissions are not immediately and fundamentally reversed. It is now necessary to focus on our own contribution to the mess that we’ve made, Dorothea Hilhorst argues. She focuses on the flying habits of development practitioners and academics, asking whether flying should become the new smoking and how we can address our problematic flying behaviour.

Flying is an important contributor to global warming, and by far one of the most complicated. There are no signs that flying will be reduced and technical solutions to reduce carbon emissions are a long way off and not very feasible. Unlike cars, electric planes are not an option—flying a plane would require its entire space to be filled with batteries.

The IPCC report that came out last week is absolutely terrifying. The possibility of retaining global heating within 1.5 degrees is rapidly disappearing and we are facing global warming of 2 or even 3 degrees. The report contains convincing evidence of the devastation of that extra degree on biodiversity, sea level rise, disaster events, the economy, coral reefs, and so on.

With regards to flying, governments should get their acts together and start taxing air travel, while investing in alternatives, especially a huge expansion of fast train networks. But in the meantime, I think organisations and their employees should also take some level of responsibility.

The IPCC report comes out in the midst of a scandal over the irresponsible ‘flying behaviour’ of Erik Solheim, the director of the United Nations Environment Programme, who travels 80% of his time. In the coverage of the scandal, most attention centred on his flying for private purposes. This reflects a general view that private flying is a luxury, but business-related travel is just what needs to be done. But is that really true? I’m pretty sure that huge cuts could easily be made in business-related air travel.

There is now a call for environmental guidelines within the UN.  What, only now? Shocking, right? But let’s be honest, the whole aid and development world—the UN, NGOs, and my own world of  academic departments and development studies—is shamefully late in taking responsibility. For decades, I have not given my flying behaviour much thought either, and found it normal or at best a necessary evil to hop on a plane for every piece of research, conference or seminar.

I will not go into name-shaming, but I know for a fact that some of the front runner developmental institutes and think tanks are not using carbon offsetting for their flights, and have no policy on reducing air travel. Since a few years back, I have tried to reduce my own air travel. I still have an oversized ecological footprint, but I fly significantly less than I used to.

I also—cautiously—try to bring up the topic in conversations with people I work with.  Here some experiences:

1) When preparing a lecture at a development institute in the UK: “Sorry, we are short on budget this year, would you mind taking the plane rather than the train?”

2) A director of a development department in the Netherlands: “Sorry, we are too busy. We will consider introducing a policy next year”.

3) A consultant coming over for an assignment: “Really, is there now a train connecting London to Amsterdam in less than four hours? I didn’t know”.

Two further defences are that people start laughing when I raise this issue, because they consider air travel to be at the core of who we are; or that they point at real polluters, usually big business or an American president. Good points, but my reading of the IPCC report is that all of us need to step up the effort: governments, business, institutions, employees and consumers.

I also know many people that refuse to carbon offset because some offset programmes are open to criticism, or because they find this tokenistic. However, offsetting is a first step. While the IPCC focuses on the devastation of future temperature rises, it is absolutely clear that climate change is already wreaking havoc, especially for poor people in poor countries.

More droughts, floods, fires. More hunger, poverty, and distress migration. It is a core principle in environmental politics that polluters should pay. There are a number of offset schemes that take this into account and use the money they generate for programs that combine livelihoods with mitigation of carbon emission, for example by protecting the vast peat areas in the world that contain huge levels of carbon. If only for this reason, a simple measure such as offsetting every flight you take should not be too much to ask.

But compensation programmes can only ever be a first small step. Next comes sharply reducing the number of flights we take.

Of course, there are already signs of these changes, and best practices are rapidly evolving. I have the feeling that NGOs may be ahead of the game compared to universities and research institutes. We academics may even be worse than the United Nations or some companies. Some obvious things we could do:

  • Some NGOs (like Oxfam – see below) have ruled that travel below xx hours cannot use air travel. I have not yet heard of a single university that sets such rules.
  • No more face-to-face job interviews, where applicants are invited to fly in so that the personal chemistry can be tested.
  • Organise international conferences of study associations every three or four years rather than every year.
  • Get used to teaching and seminars through Skype.
  • Introduce a rule that planes must be booked well in advance to avoid that the only available or affordable ticket comes with three stops and huge detours.
  • Invest more in identifying and fostering local experts to avoid international consultancies.

I’m sure there are plenty more examples, and would love to hear suggestions. Taxing carbon use and investing in green transport systems like fast trains will definitely help to reduce air travel. What we really need, though, is a change of mentality. Let’s stop kidding ourselves. Let’s get ready for an era where flying is the new smoking. It won’t be long before people who fly have some awkward explaining to do over the Friday afternoon drinks after work.

TheaAbout the author:

Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. See other articles by her here and here and here and here