News about extreme weather events is increasing. But climate policy is taking a backseat to other crises. A worldview centered on climate change collides with concrete facts. Does more value pluralism help?
The year 2023 will likely be the hottest year since temperature measurements began. Many countries have suffered from heatwaves, droughts or floods in recent months. The records were pulverized. Climate researchers see their warnings about global warming confirmed.
However, surveys show that many people do not currently consider climate change to be one of the world’s most important problems. The political momentum to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is weakening somewhat. The Economist notes an international counter-movement. Parties that have made it their mission to protect the climate are suffering bitter defeats – whether in Switzerland or Germany. Parties that adhere to more obscure theories about climate change are gaining votes.
How is this possible? Shouldn’t climate concerns at least be able to compete with other political concerns – especially in a year with such severe weather events as 2023? How should this continue?
Wars distract the climate
There are certainly several reasons for the decline in voter interest in typical “climate protection parties”. Europe is directly or indirectly involved in the military conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East. This diverts attention from the issue of climate change. Furthermore, the economy is not doing well. This has a very real impact on many people’s everyday lives – and influences their voting decisions.
But there are also deeper reasons. In the past, many of those committed to climate protection have relied on simplistic stories or narratives whose persuasive power is gradually weakening. More and more people are of the opinion that there are a series of problems on the planet that are more important than climate change. The old narratives are proving to be very one-sided.
Climate geographer Mike Hulme of the University of Cambridge has examined a central narrative. He studied the widespread belief that human-caused climate change is the dominant explanation for all social, economic and ecological phenomena on Earth. Hulme calls this belief “climatism.”
In his book “Climate change is not everything” he describes the emergence and characteristics of this climate worldview. As a precaution, Hulme distances himself from the idea that he intends to trivialize the problem of climate change. He doesn’t want that. Instead, he wants to correct an undesirable development.
The world perceived in black and white
Typical of the world’s limited view of climate, for example, is that the global average temperature has become a fetish. This temperature does not adequately characterize the state of the climate; the climate is much more complex. Yet the average temperature is often spoken of as if it were the perfect indicator of all the ills of the earth. Hulme compares temperature to gross domestic product, which can only describe the state of an economy to a limited extent.
If diseases like West Nile fever are on the rise, this is often attributed to the effects of climate change – which is also an indication of one-sidedness. Because climate is just one factor among many. Diseases are also influenced by economic changes, educational levels and lifestyle changes.
The reasons for conflicts are interpreted unilaterally
Even military conflicts are often viewed through an ideological lens. It is not uncommon to read, for example, that the war in Syria was caused by a drought and that this, in turn, was caused by climate change. The complex political and social conditions of the war in Syria – especially the government of Bashar al-Asad – are largely ignored in such analyses.
The opposite also becomes a shoe-in: if a war breaks out somewhere, someone will soon ask what effect that will have on the climate. “How the Israel-Hamas War Endangers Action on Global Warming” was the title of a recent article in the New York Times. The newspaper didn’t seem bothered that this might seem out of place at this time.
In general, according to Hulme, representatives of the worldview he criticizes tend to use apocalyptic rhetoric. This does not allow shades of gray. The world is clearly divided between good and evil.
The ideological narrowing of the climate focus is a global phenomenon. There is plenty of evidence for Hulme’s thesis – and yet it doesn’t do reality justice. Because fixation on climate change is often part of a broader ideological complex.
Just look at the German-speaking world, where climate commitment is closely linked to a backward-looking romanticism of nature. Climate activists linked to international networks have other ideological warhorses: the range extends from rejection of capitalism to criticism of racism and colonialism to feminism. In these cases, it is not always clear whether climate plays the primary role.
Does a mathematical concept from chaos theory help?
One of the scientific institutes that has been repeatedly criticized by critics like Hulme for having an ideologically colored view of the world is the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. In this regard, it is worth taking a look at the recently published book by German climatologist Anders Levermann, who works at the institute in question.
In his work “The folding of the world”, Levermann offers a concept with which he intends to help escape both the “climate crisis” and the “growth dilemma”. By growth dilemma, Levermann understands the double-edged effect of economic growth: We need growth, according to the author, but it must be dissociated from the destruction of our planet.
On the surface, the book’s approach seems very scientific. The term “folding” in the book’s title comes from the mathematical field of chaos theory. Levermann tries to illustrate his concept with a table tennis ball: This ball always follows new trajectories in a clearly defined space and thus makes the most of the freedom offered to it. The author tries to show that a certain freedom of movement can be maintained even within predetermined limits.
Limits are now called “folding limits”
However, the idea of using the folding concept to solve two global problems at the same time seems like an idea. Where the book is specific, you don’t find any really new proposed solutions. The mathematical term serves more to give already known concepts an elegant new coating: to describe COtwo-To reduce emissions, a price cap is needed; economic growth must occur within certain limits. The only new thing in these proposals is that these limits are now called “folding limits”.
The physicist is certainly not one of those who paints the devil on the wall when it comes to climate developments. But even with it, certain patterns of argumentation that Hulme describes as characteristic of climatism can be clearly recognized.
What is typical, for example, is the tendency to derive policy recommendations for action directly from climate science. The overemphasis on the danger of approaching climate tipping points is like the classic climatism that Hulme satirized. Levermann also attributes negative developments in the world to climate change. It ignores aspects of reality that also have a strong influence. For example, he naturally believes that the claim that climate change is responsible for the war in Syria is a coherent thesis. He doesn’t even discuss counterarguments.
More value pluralism could be a solution
Only when the contradictions between common ideological concepts and reality become very clear do alternative concepts have their chance in the arena of public opinion formation. We haven’t reached that point yet, but we are getting closer to it. But what are the alternatives for those who see climate change as real and threatening, but reject worldviews like climate change?
Hulme defends political pragmatism and liberal pluralism of values. Serious problems like climate change require clumsy solutions, he writes. You would like to know more about this. But unfortunately the British only explains these “clumsy solutions” in an abstract way.
The closest we come to concrete examples is where Hulme advocates a variety of goals: those who fight deforestation must combine this with the fight against global warming, and they must also include promoting health and fighting poverty at the same time. decarbonize the energy system. . However, these suggestions are already part of the climate discourse. It has long been known that it makes sense to take into account the co-benefits of climate protection measures.
Hulme convincingly presents his concern that we should not fixate ideologically on climate change. But his offer of solutions seems anemic and a bit unimaginative. Greater effort is needed to provide broad communication. This is especially true at a time that is overshadowed by other problems.