Human civilisation vs the climate crisis: lessons for the climate movement

This op-ed by Murat Suner is published in THE BEAM #13.


In order to truly see our way through the climate crisis, we must acknowledge some of the basic realities of our existence, learn from our weaknesses, and then regain optimism and recalibrate our approach.

Shall we start with the dire part? Then let’s face it: The global climate crisis, which goes hand in hand with the mass extinction of species, is an overload for human civilisation. Although we are destroying the very foundations of life on our planet, we are in danger of failing because of the conflict between two primal human characteristics that could not be more opposite: cooperation versus selfishness.

Why is humankind now in danger of failing after six million years of survival on this planet?

We have the innate ability to cooperate with each other to a high degree and even to be kind to one another. In contrast to traditional Western thought, historian Rutger Bregman claims, human beings are not evil but, on the contrary, fundamentally good. Reviewing the last 200,000 years of human history, Bregman shows in his acclaimed book “Humankind” that we are evolutionarily oriented toward cooperation rather than competition and that our instinct to trust one another has a solid evolutionary foundation that dates back to the origins of Homo Sapiens.

We are indeed able to achieve societal change. However, social achievements such as the introduction of democracy, the struggle for decolonisation or for women’s rights – once considered radical and now more or less accepted – required hundreds of years of struggle and thousands and thousands of lives.

Unlike with these social advances, however, the clock is now mercilessly ticking on climate change. What’s more is that because the climate has tipping points, the clock is ticking faster and faster, and once those tipping points are surpassed the changes in our global ecosystem will become irreversible. Now, at 1.2 degrees above the pre-industrial levels measured in early 2022, we have 10 years to remain within the 1.5 °C range of global warming to avoid the climate crisis’ most adverse and irreversible consequences. And so, the fight against man’s selfish and self-serving nature is likely to fail in the short term.


Aerial view of Rocinha, Brazil’s largest favela, facing the skyline of Rio de Janeiro. © Shutterstock Aerial view of Rocinha, Brazil’s largest favela, facing the skyline of Rio de Janeiro. © Shutterstock


It’s the inequality, stupid

The second important factor is structural inequality. All these social advances mentioned above were achieved due to uprisings against inequality. They were, and still are, led from the bottom up; from poor against rich or from the many against the few. In the fight against climate change, both factors – time and inequality – come into play together.

Let’s look at some facts along this distribution of wealth and power. Oxfam’s 2020 Global Study clearly shows where the responsibility for climate change lies based on the share of carbon dioxide emissions between 1990 and 2015.

The emissions released by the richest 10% of the world’s population are as high as the entire rest of the globe. And the richest 1% are responsible for twice as many emissions as 50% of the world’s population.

So a fraction of the world’s population causes the problem, while the rest of humanity, mainly the global south, suffers most. This is made possible due to the political and economic structures of inequality that the powerful and wealthy cling to in order not to lose their privileges. The core of these privileges lies in the practice of maximising and concentrating profits while externalising costs, thus passing the burden onto the general public and the environment or into the future – until it is no longer possible.

All of this is embedded in the false narrative of infinite growth – from which the poor would, theoretically, ultimately benefit. However, the neoliberal mantra of trickle-down, so to speak, will not work on a finite planet. The poorer countries of the Global South bear the majority of consequences and, at the same time,, unlike the richest industrialised countries, are urged to abandon the use of fossil fuels for their economic development. This conflict of interests has been named, but not sufficiently addressed, let alone solved.


Climate action at COP26 in Glasgow  © William Gibson Climate action at COP26 in Glasgow © William Gibson


Signs of Hope and Disappointment

The Paris Climate Agreement was indeed an extraordinary sign of hope, with 192 countries and the EU, representing over 98% of global greenhouse gas emissions, signing it. However, it largely failed to live up to its promise of getting the main drivers of the climate crisis to make crucial structural changes and to support poorer countries in order to enable true global cooperation.

In 2009 at COP15, the rich industrialised nations in Copenhagen made the unkept promise to pay $100 billion a year into a climate fund for the world’s poorer people from 2020 onwards. A year later at COP number 16, the promise was repeated in Cancun and was again unfulfilled. In Glasgow at COP26(!), it’s been postponed to 2023.

The overall results of Glasgow are telling. Even if all the decisions – binding or not – were to result in concrete action, COP26 will most likely lead to a +3.2˚ C increase. No one should live in such a world.

COPs fail by design

While COPs are necessary gatherings where decision-makers from across the globe come together to negotiate and collaborate, we need to recognise that the format of the summits is not working. This is because COPs try to negotiate an almost impossible outcome: a solidarity agreement, andut despite the certainty that the catastrophic consequences will inevitably occur if appropriate action is not taken, there is no mechanism to punish those who refuse to act.

The structural problem of COPs is that their decisions are based on unanimity. The intention that everyone must be on board in order to build global consensus on a global problem seems right, but the fact that everyone is invited, including the worst polluters – such as the fossil fuel and gas industries, thwarts any meaningful consensus. It is absurd that the largest delegation at COP26, larger than that of any country, represented the fossil fuel industry. It’s like holding a global conference on drug addiction and having the largest participating faction be drug dealers. This must be changed.


PM Boris Johnson speaks at Cop26 © Karwai Tang PM Boris Johnson speaks at Cop26 © Karwai Tang


It’s simple: no global solutions without global inclusion

What are the lessons for climate movement?

Unfortunately, climate activism is part of the problem. The climate movement emerged in the West, and so did its language. It is full of stories about polar bears, Gretas, degrees Celsius and parts per million, which excludes 90% of humanity from the discussion.

And so, firstly, the discourse has to take into account the reality of life for the majority of the world’s population. When one in three people worldwide does not have access to clean drinking water, nearly one billion people do not have enough to eat, two in five people do not have the means to wash their hands with soap and water, and nearly 800 million people still practice outdoor defecation; when 750 million people do not have electricity and more than 200 million people are displaced, we need to recognise that climate change is about food and agriculture, water and sanitation, housing and security – and yes, green energy too.

Secondly, we need to strike a balance between speaking truth to power against the backdrop of existential crisis, while remaining hopeful and talking about solutions so that people are motivated to mobilise to build and sustain pressure.

Thirdly, activism coming from the Global North focuses too much on how people in the Global South are oppressed and marginalised. While this is true, we also need to emphasise that people still have agency. Otherwise, we make people spectators instead of actors and participants. We need to harness what people have to offer in terms of skills and assets, such as their consumption power, wealth and potential investments, as well as their political voices as citizens.

But perhaps the most complex task facing climate activists is understanding and simultaneously addressing the contradictions of the resolution process.

On the one hand, we need systemic redesign and transformation, as we cannot expect that the current economic system, which has brought us to the edge of the abyss, could be the solution. Especially, the people of the Global North have to understand that the way to achieving a meaningful and decent life cannot be to accumulate more and more, because we live on a finite planet with great social and economic inequality.

On the other hand, we cannot wait until we have undergone a fundamental change. Climate change does not afford us that time. The world is messy, and so we need to address the crisis systemically and pragmatically. We can draw on our cooperative capacities to build alliances with very different actors from different sectors, including businesses, who work towards the same goal, even if the means are different.

Finally, the good news is that we are in fact the majority. Almost two thirds of humanity, to be precise. That’s because, according to the “People’s Climate Vote”, the world’s largest survey on climate change, conducted by the UNDP and Oxford University in 2021, the vast majority of humanity has agreed that climate change is an emergency and sent a clear and compelling call to governments and policymakers to step up their ambition.

We, the ones who believe in cooperation and kindness, in hope and agency, are the many – not the few.


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