The dangers of climate change pseudo-activity

“Is Venice not built upon the sea, even though it was built in such a way that a generation finally came along that did not notice this at all, and would it not be a lamentable misunderstanding if this latest generation was so in error until the pilings began to rot, and the city sank?”

When Søren Kierkegaard wrote his Philosophical Fragments in 1844, he was naturally not writing about climate change. Still, his description is strikingly precise in explaining the situation climate scientists have long told us we are in. The only difference is that we now have evidence to show that the pilings are, in fact, rotting.


Oliver Matikainen

Singer’s child

As a consequence, the European Union and 194 other countries have committed themselves to do everything in their power to avoid the collapse of the pilings by signing onto UN’s major climate agreement, the Paris Agreement. The Agreement is built on the moral and political principle of “common-but-differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities” which holds that those (countries) with the broadest shoulders should carry the greatest burden. If you are reading this magazine with a cup of coffee, there is a good chance you belong to this privileged group.

The Australian moral philosopher, Peter Singer, explains the responsibility that follows from this principle through a now-famous analogy: “Suppose you encounter a child face down in the water. Even though you did not push the child in, you nonetheless have a duty to rescue it if you can. To put it more strongly: you act wrongly if you don’t jump in.”

On the issue of climate change the grand question is then: “will we jump in”? Are we even trying to prevent the pilings from rotting faster still, making more people end up face down in the water?

The Climate Hasselhoff

On April 22 of this year, in connection with the presentation of their new energy plan, Danish Minister of Climate and Energy, Lars Christian Lilleholt, proudly went on practically every Danish news-outlet to say that “the current government is the greenest government in the history of Denmark!”. There were no limits to the superlatives of the heroic, potent and impressive climate actions of the government. Lilleholt himself was only a tight pair of red swim shorts away from being a true Climate Hasselhoff!

Kind of.

For a leaked negotiation note that the very same government sent to the other parties in Parliament showed that their energy plan proposal would lead to an increase in emissions of 5–10% by 2030.

Without shame, the same Ministry announced in 2017 that they — with wide support from the opposition — are lowering taxes on oil and gas exploration in the North Sea in a window between 2017–2025 to promote investments in oil exploration.

And here is the problem: we like to believe that we are doing a lot when we are, in fact, doing very little. The Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, is right when he says that “The threat today is not passivity, but pseudo-activity, the urge to ‘be active’, to ‘participate’, to mask the Nothingness of what goes on”.

Hasselhoff gets company

It is of course unfair to scapegoat Denmark and create images of Mr. Lilleholt in uncomfortably tight swimwear because there are plenty of similar examples from other parts of the rich world.

In the UK, Theresa May’s 25-year environment plan was largely bereft of meaningful content (they want, for example, to “work towards eliminating avoidable plastic waste by 2042”) and promised nothing but “to nod sagely and look very serious” in the words of George Monbiot.

Canada, the climate darlings of North America who champion the rhetoric of heart-warming fairness and tough climate action, announced earlier this year that they are intending to lay nearly 1,000 kilometres of new oil pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands to the Pacific coast for the staggering price of US$3.5 billion.

EU’s market-based emission trading scheme was a neoliberal dream but too many carbon allowances at too low prices made the system utterly inefficient. According to EU’s own numbers, their import of crude oil, gas and diesel oil is on the rise while their emissions grew by 1.7% last year.

The group of the broad-shouldered who has promised to take responsibility and act strongly on climate change are not afraid to boast of their good intentions — but truly bold, meaningful and serious climate action is yet to be seen.

A deliberate choice

Our task as citizens is to be on our toes and call out these pseudo-actions for what they are: pseudo-solutions to a very real problem. Just as the child exposed the naked emperor in Hans Christian Andersen’s popular tale, we too must “unmask the Nothingness of what goes on” on the fashionable political stage of climate action.

Singer’s child is drowning in Kierkegaard’s Venice. Meanwhile, we are flexing muscles on the shore, refusing to get our feet wet.

If we continue like this, the predicted collapse of Venice can no longer be seen as a lamentable misunderstanding but must instead be called what it really is: a deliberate choice.

Oliver Matikainen is a Master Student in Sustainable Development at CEMUS, Uppsala University and junior consultant to UNESCO MGIEP. Twitter: o_matikainen

This article was published in The Beam #7 — Subscribe now for more

This article is also available to view on our Medium page.