Four truths about climate action

Last Friday, in many countries around the world, millions were out on the streets to protest for action against climate change. In Germany, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in more than 500 towns[1]. Over the weekend, newspapers and social media buzzed with photos showing large crowds in public places; many of my friends and acquaintances posted their own snapshots from the protest marches. Some wrote more  skeptical posts, questioning the effectiveness of the marches; some, in turn, pointed to articles predicting – and warning against – a “backlash” on the current climate movement[2]. Since the beginning of the week, before and around the United Nations Climate Action Summit, many also posted comments attacking those who criticize the marches or others of the activists’ actions, often ridiculing the critiques.

This mix of messages worries me. As a consultant, I’ve been active in and around the climate space for more than ten years[3], and as a sustainability geek, I’m impressed and inspired by the broad visibility the topic is currently gaining around the globe. At the same time, for practical reasons, as a freelancer and as a mother, I was not on the streets on Friday[4]: I had work to do, and I had to pick up my son from a school trip. But – and above all: As a trained historian and as a citizen with a strong belief in democracy, I’m worried that currently there’s a real risk of the topic being turned into an ideological battlefield by skeptics and believers alike.

I’ll let others deal with the many red herrings thrown around by climate deniers to denigrate the current climate activists[5]. Instead, I will focus on four truths on climate action which are often overlooked – not by the critiques, but by many supporters of the current climate movements. Alas: Overlooking these truths provides ample material for climate critiques to pick on the protesters. And – maybe even more worrying – disregarding these truths sows rich seeds for discord amongst those who in principle support the protesters’ demands for more stringent climate action. On the bright side of things: Remembering these truths and acting accordingly will most likely make the difference between a climate movement which makes a real difference – and one that falls prey to the fangs of ideological positioning.

Let’s get going – and please be patient, as this will be long.

1. The current climate activists are not the first to raise the issue

Firstly, the current climate activists are not the first ever people who raise the issue of man-induced climate change, its most probably disastrous consequences for our planet, and the urgent need for counter-action[6]. Over the past 50 years, the need for sustainable management of our planet’s resources has been recognized and promoted by many. Think of, for example: Greenpeace (founded in 1971)[7]; the Club of Rome’s 1972 report “Limits to Growth”[8]; the installation of the “Right Livelihood Award” (1980) [9]; the German parliament’s 1994 decision to include protecting the environment (“Umweltschutz”) as a state goal (“Staatsziel”) into Germany’s constitution[10]; or the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015[11].

Therefore: It is very acceptable to be impressed by the current activists’ enthusiasm and determination as well as by their ability to mobilize significant crowds and attract broad media attention. But: It is wrong to presume that all who addressed the issue of climate change before them were hypocrites without real insight into the matter and without sincere motivation. And it is equally is wrong to paint today’s protesters as the first to seriously bring up the topic, starting some time after August 2018. They – like all of us in all fields of knowledge and action – stand on the shoulders of others who fought the same cause before them. Some of those fights succeeded[12]; some failed. Understanding what was already tried, what worked, and what didn’t: All this is important information we all need to take into account to assess what should be tried next. Accidentally, for making something happen, this information is at least as important as the scientific insights on the effects of climate change.

2. Nobody can single-handedly decide to stop climate change

Secondly, nobody – no individual, no activist group, no company, no non-governmental organisation, no government, and no international institution – can single-handedly decide to stop climate change. Climate change is neither a broken record which can be halted by lifting the tonearm, nor an epidemic which can be contained by handing out antibiotics. Climate change is a consequence of more than a century of humanity’s adoption of a lifestyle and economy feeding on fossil fuels – from power generation to mobility, from metals to plastics, from buildings to agriculture.

In practice, on a global as well as on a regional scale, no single sector’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is bigger than a quarter of total emissions[13]. So: Even the (impractical) measure of completely cutting emissions from a whole sector would never come anywhere near the target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent in 2030[14]. In addition, in terms of countries, amongst the five biggest greenhouse gas emitters, the fastest growing are still China and India – by simple logic of their growing economies. Given their combined contribution of almost 40 percent to global greenhouse emissions, nothing other countries do can ever compensate their emission reduction need. At the same time: Nothing the fastest growing emitters do can release other countries from contributing their fair share – especially those regions with the biggest carbon footprint per citizen, in particular the United States, the Middle East and Europe.

Therefore: There is no point for anybody to point to others to achieve the required reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. There’s no single measure that will do the trick. Putting a brake on climate change requires global coordination – as well as painstakingly detailed regional and local implementation. This is what the Paris Agreement, negotiated in 2015, attempts to achieve in its ingenious combination of overall commitment to reduction targets meeting a maximum increase in global temperatures by 1.5-2°C and nationally determined contributions (NDCs)[15]. It is acceptable to ask countries and sectors to deliver ambitious and feasible action plans to achieve those targets. It is unfair to unilaterally put the blame for a shortfall in ambition or feasibility on any single industry or government alone.

3. No individual can live a completely carbon-neutral life

Thirdly, no single individual can live a completely carbon-neutral life. For a human being, living, breathing, moving, speaking, and acting on this planet, there is no way to be an emission saint. To begin with, we all inhale oxygen; we all exhale carbon dioxide[16]. Then, by virtue of living in a certain country, using its infrastructure, and being part of its economy, every single one of us carries a proportional share of that particular country’s greenhouse gas emissions – regardless of personal lifestyle. And finally, individual choices on housing, clothing, food, and mobility influence each person’s personal greenhouse gas footprint[17].

Therefore: It is useful to know one’s individual carbon footprint to understand its biggest drivers, make better choices, and consciously navigate the necessary tradeoffs for oneself. It is admirable if someone can drastically reduce their own carbon footprint by adapting their lifestyle to become more and more sustainable. It is hypocritical to bash others for making different choices and for solving tradeoffs in different ways.

To illustrate by personal example: I feel carbonly bad about flying a lot for my business (even with offsets), living in a large apartment in a 1900s building with no insulation at all, eating meat or fish 2-3 times a week, and buying exotic fruit on a regular basis. What if I changed my job to work locally, moved to a much smaller and newer place, went vegetarian (or vegan), and limited myself to local fruit? I do ask myself these questions frequently – so far, however, my personal costs in terms of wellbeing and happiness seemed too high: I love my job and my flat, and I enjoy the odd steak followed by mango sorbet. Still: Given different preferences, others will make different choices.

At the same time: I feel carbonly good about not owning a car, buying power generated from renewable sources, not heating my apartment’s living quarters above 18°C, making my own bread, and buying hardly any pre-processed or frozen food. But then: I live near the center of a city with excellent public transport, in a country with a functioning power system with a now almost 50 percent of renewables, in a moderate climate zone, in a healthy body, and with a reasonably comfortable income. What if I lived in a remote suburb of some sprawling megacity, suffering from chronic rheumatism, alone with three young kids, living off a tiny income from cleaning jobs and my late husband’s dwindling retirement funds? So: Given different circumstances, others will make different choices.

4. We need to keep talking in order to act

Fourthly, we need to keep talking in order to be able to act responsibly. The facts are: Stopping climate change is a topic worked on for long and by many; progress towards tangible improvements has been slow; finding solutions means involving many parties and dealing with many interests; no specific group can be declared guilty for unilaterally hindering progress; no individual human being can bow out of our collective responsibility for the issue. All this means: Finding effective ways to stop climate change’s desastrous consequences represents a complex, multilayered, adaptive problem for mankind. And, as a matter of fact: No complex, multilayered, adaptive problem has ever been solved by simplistic, unilateral, technical actions. So: We need to accept that acting on climate change will only be successful if we keep complex, multilayered, adaptive conversations going around the globe and in our respective communities. The result of such conversations might well be a very different world order than the one we know today; getting there without violence on the way will only succeed if we keep talking.

Let’s not idolize those who march. And let’s not vilify those who don’t. This is not about being on the right side. This is about acknowledging past (and current) efforts, and about analysing past (and current) failures in order to learn from them and do a lot better.

Let’s not look for culprits and scapegoats. And let’s not pay attention to those who play  games of blaming and shaming. This is not about finding the villain. It is not about “the” politicians, “the” companies, or “the” individual having done wrong. It is about all of us admitting that humanity did irreversibly mess with global climate by building an economy around technologies which emit way more greenhouse gases than our planet’s ecosystem can absorb. And then it is about all of us jointly accepting the enormity of the challenge and about working together to create viable ways out of this mess.

Let’s not panic. This is not about individual salvation or doom. This is about collectively being radically realistic and courageously creative about what we can do – together, and each of us on their own. In order to get there, we will have to engage in the oldest – and sometimes: most difficult – art of political activism: We will have to continue to talk to each other to understand each others’ current perspectives. As much as anger or sadness might push us around, getting to this understanding is first of all an act of our rational minds, based on our compassion for all human beings and on our love for this world. Building on this understanding, we can then jointly act towards a shared – and, for each individual, changed – perspective for a sustainable future for mankind on this planet.

Let’s make this a movement which looks at all facts in a clear-headed way. Let’s make it  a movement that does not sort humanity into “good” and “bad”, but acknowledges the complexity of human communities and their continuous need to negotiate conflicts of interest amongst their members. Let’s make it a movement which accepts every individual human being with its specific contradictions, its personal set of emotions, and its ability to think and act rationally.

Above all: Let’s keep talking.


[1] Some numbers can be found in this article [retrieved Sept 21, 2019].BACK TO TEXT

[2] See, for example, this commentary, cautioning politicians against falling into the trap of accidentally taking sides of those criticizing the climate protesters [retrieved Sept 23, 2019]. BACK TO TEXT

[3] In terms of credentials as well as in the spirit of disclosure: Back in 2007, when working for the global consultancy McKinsey & Company, Inc., I led a project with the German Industry Association, assessing costs and potentials of greenhouse gas abatement in Germany. The main report can still be downloaded here [retrieved Sept 21, 2019]. Ever since, a significant portion of my consulting work has been on issues around sustainabililty strategy and organisation for companies as well as for associations and non-governmental organisations. For some more thoughts on the matter, see my first post on this blog [retrieved Sept 23, 2019]. BACK TO TEXT

[4] I also admit that emotionally, I’m not a lover of large crowds, and this tweet captured the best ever protest sign, exactly matching my emotional attitude [retrieved Sept 21, 2019]. However, rationally, I fully acknowledge the power of large scale demonstrations to push political decision making towards paths which otherwise might feel to risky to take. BACK TO TEXT

[5] For those interested in expanding their arsenal of arguments, case studies, and stories around the topic, I highly recommend this week’s “The Economist”, aptly called “The Climate Issue” with the many relevant articles. The online edition can be found here [retrieved Sept 24, 2019]. BACK TO TEXT

[6] I actually do think most of the current protesters themselves would not make this claim. However, the way many reports and comments about the recent climate marches frame what is happening, makes it sound as if there was no attention whatsoever on the issue by nobody anywhere – before and until Greta Thunberg started her school strike more than a year ago.BACK TO TEXT

[7] An organisation to “ensure the ability of the earth to nurture life in all its diversity”, as per Greenpeace’s mission here [retrieved Sept 22, 2019]. BACK TO TEXT

[8] The report describes the unsustainable effects of the interdependent consequences of population increase, agricultural production, nonrenewable resource depletion, industrial output, and pollution generation. The book can be downloaded here [retrieved Sept 22, 2019].BACK TO TEXT

[9] Established by Jacob von Uexkull as a prize for “coming up with practical answers to challenges like the pollution of our air, soil and water, the danger of nuclear war, the abuse of basic human rights, the destitution and misery of the poor and the over-consumption and spiritual poverty of the wealthy”; quoted from the “Right Livelihood Award”‘s “About” page [retrieved Sept 22, 2019]. BACK TO TEXT

[10] Article 20a of the German “Grundgesetz” now reads: “Der Staat schützt auch in Verantwortung für die künftigen Generationen die natürlichen Lebensgrundlagen und die Tiere im Rahmen der verfassungsmäßigen Ordnung durch die Gesetzgebung und nach Maßgabe von Gesetz und Recht durch die vollziehende Gewalt und die Rechtsprechung”. BACK TO TEXT

[11] Read more here [retrieved Sept 22, 2019]. BACK TO TEXT

[12] A good example for a working solution in the environmental space can be found in the series of global agreements to protect the ozone layers, dating back to the 1980s. Read more here [retrieved Sept 22, 2019]. BACK TO TEXT

[13] See, for example, the data provided by the United States Environmental Protection Agency here [retrieved Sept 22, 2019]. BACK TO TEXT

[14] For more on this goal (against the 2017 baseline), see the IPCC report from 2018 here [retrieved Sept 22, 2019]. BACK TO TEXT

[15] More on the Paris Agreement can be found here [retrieved Sept 22, 2019]. BACK TO TEXT

[16] This is grossly simplified. We inhale about 80 percent nitrogen and 20 percent oxygen, and a small percentage of other gases; and we exhale about 4-5 percent of carbon dioxide – see details in this article on Wikipedia [retrieved Sept 22, 2019]. BACK TO TEXT

[17] By now, everybody even remotely interested in the subject will have calculated their personal carbon footprint. There are many tools on the internet providing background information and tools for calculation based on information about personal life circumstances – pick whichever you like (and maybe test 2-3 different tools to see how the results differ).BACK TO TEXT

Note: The image featured above is an edited version of a close-up mobile photo of the graphic used in this week’s “The Economist”, taken from the work of Ed Hawkins at the University of Reading, representing the years from 1850 to 2018 with the colours showing each year’s average temperature compared with the average in 1971-2000.

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