WDEV special: Subscribe now and get 4 weeks free >>> here
deutschsprachige Version

Our new website address:  

Home Mission Statement Subscriptions Sample Copies Services Blogs Background Links Archives

Volume 2017
Volume 2016
Volume 2015
Volume 2014
Volume 2013
Volume 2012
Volume 2011
Volume 2010
Volume 2009
Volume 2008
Volume 2007
Volume 2006
Special Reports
For subscribers only
Show memo
Show shopping cart
Proceed to check-out
Your account
Europe Global Environment & Development The New South From G8 to G20 The Development Agenda UN Reform Global Finance Doha Final The Euro-zone in Crisis Eastern Europe

Climate, climate change and dead horses

A comment by Achim Brunnengräber

The growing demands for the international community to act responsibly in combating climate change are rooted in the overwhelming certainty that the climate is changing, and this will cause major catastrophes. It is crucial that we act now, if we are going to limit the global increase in temperature this century to less than the critical figure of 2°Celcius compared to pre-industrial eras. The host countries of the UN Climate Change Conference (expecting another breakthrough in France in 2015), as well as Germany and the European Union (EU), ought to face up to their special responsibility and (again) adopt a pioneering role.


Innumerable NGOs are driven by this basic paradigm in their committed efforts to protect the Earth’s atmosphere. They constantly remind those national, European and international governing institutions of their responsibilities and duties (see, for example, the German NGOs’ position paper presented in January 2014(1)). Until now neither the individual countries nor the EU, nor the international community of states, are willing to implement far reaching climate measures, let alone to “speak with one voice”. This was the case at the last Climate Change Conference in Warsaw in late 2013, where the Polish government not merely hosted the talks, but simultaneously courted the international coal industry lobby, and even dismissed its minister of environment during the conference. The international fragmentation of climate policy was already apparent in the years before, from Copenhagen (2009) to Cancún (2010), Durban (2011) and Doha (2012);(2) it only became increasingly worse.

● Climate justice: Nobody wants to listen

As a result, many socio-ecological initiatives as well as environmental and developmental NGOs have taken a critical stance by cooperating with the UN. Outside the conference venues, they firmly stated that climate change should not to be viewed as an environmental catastrophe capable of being countered with market instruments. Instead, they insist, that it results from a far more profound crisis in society and the capitalist economic system. Consequently, they organised the Climate Justice Now-Network at the Conference on Climate Change in 2007, and the Climate Justice Action Coalition in Copenhagen in 2009. These networks bring together ecological and social concerns regarding the climate justice. In addition, they suggest tackling the causes of climate change at their political and economic roots. However, no one wants to listen – not even these environmental and developmental NGOs which have established themselves as Climate Action Network within the UN (CAN). Accepting the key message that there is no alternative to governmental action and the annual UN Conferences, they support and legitimise a system of talks and negotiations which, with the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, sought to generate change in international law, while multilateralism is losing its strength year after year.

Be that as it may, governments and the international community remain the core focus of all hope (no own demands have been made for a long time). The logic of the arguments is well known: the formula of ‘climate change + catastrophe = the need for governmental action’, even though no proof has ever been offered that this formula could work. On the contrary, there is an overwhelming body of evidence to support the formula: ‘state inaction on climate policy + economic interests = increasing emissions’.3) Even in Germany, greenhouse gas emissions rose again in 2012 compared to 2011. In contrast, the USA, which never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, has managed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by increasing its use of natural gas. Admittedly, though, this has only been feasible through natural gas production from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which creates quite a different set of devastating problems for people and the environment.4)

● High time for analysis of root causes and critical debate

It is high time for civil society as well to conduct a basic root cause analysis and critically debate the well-trodden path of protest practices.5) After years of government failures and the international community itself massively blocking international approaches, a critical review of previous initiatives, campaigns and expertise is needed to generate a basis for new ideas and strategies in the battle against climate change. In his article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 19.11.2013, Christoph Bals appears to sense this when he quotes the Philippines lead climate negotiator Naderev Yeb Saño who asked, during the Climate Change Conference in Warsaw after the devastating typhoon Haiyan, whether the time was not ripe for civil disobedience. After all, civil society actors and social movements have a far more imaginative repertoire of activities than the constant preparation and collaboration at talks that are degenerating into a farce.

Firstly, let’s look at the issue of causes. Greenpeace is outraged by the way the Polish government courted the coal lobby: “We would not like negotiations promoting the most polluting industries to become associated with solving climate change.” (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 18.11.2013) Yet this points precisely to international climate policy’s structural problem, which corresponds to that fundamental selectivity so often characterised in international politics. Only the evil genie lets out of the bottle by our production cycle or economic system, streamlined for more growth (that is, the annually increasing greenhouse gases) can become the key reference point in the UN climate talks. New additional priority topics are adjustment measures, loss and damage, REDDplus (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) or eco-services,6) but none of them deals with the input side of energy systems with a high percentage of fossil fuels. This is far from being any sort of logical consequence of man-made climate change; instead, it reflects a powerful selectiveness in setting the agenda.

Already, at the first Climate Change Conference held in Berlin in 1995, OPEC did not want to discuss oil, Russia did not want to discuss gas, and the majority of countries did not want to discuss coal, which means the production cycle and causes of greenhouse gases is a taboo – and remains a taboo. To ensure that no one notices, there is conference after conference of obsessively detailed talks, such as in Warsaw 2013, when negotiating emissions trading (which never works), voluntary financial transfers from North to South (where the full amounts are never paid) and the protection of the rain forests (whose destruction continues unabated) are not really a solution. There may still be forceful objections to one government after another boycotting the international arena in times of crisis, refusing to burden their ailing state finances with high energy prices, wanting to make money from oil, coal, and gas, and protecting their energy intensive business sectors. However, this has never been the subject of serious negotiations.


This raises, secondly, the question of counter-strategies. The arena where politics takes place has changed. Bilateral negotiations are preferred rather what is often weak international consensus. A more forward-looking vision of a low carbon society never stood a chance against international pragmatism. The international community is not the pivotal point for those major transformations which many think tanks have been so vehemently demanding for. Nevertheless, major national, European and international policies can hardly be expected to produce a major turnaround. The aims of the German government – as specified in the coalition agreement7) – are anything but ambitious, and that lack of ambition is just as apparent at the European level – see the Policy Framework for Climate and Energy in the period from 2020 to 2030.8) The message is: more industrial policy, and less climate protection.

This is also one reason why there has already been a shift in the priority topics and strategies – as is evident in the example of the German Energiewende (energy transition). This has become far more important than international climate policy has been for Germany, because it gives a clear picture of the real problems: The political debate about energy providers reveals the diversity of interests between an old emissions-intensive sector (defending its privileges with all the force it can muster) and a sustainable sector advocating renewables (which could find that it has lost its political support in the new coalition of Christian and Social Democrats).9) After all, the energy industry and its representatives in governments and the EU Commission have quite a lot to lose, as the economic situation of the four major power supply companies shows in Germany. The European Union is not getting involved: Member States can set their own environmental standards with regards to fracking, and largely decide independently on how to achieve the (low) expansion targets for the renewables sector. In other words, the decision on how climate friendly the future energy system will be is made at the national level.

● Breaking up the market consensus

However, there are social clashes about climate, environmental and resource protection in greater Europe and in the world. Anti-fracking campaigns seeking to prevent the injection of damaging chemicals into the earth have become globally. Camps for Climate Action, taking the topic of climate protection into everyday life, and grass-roots protests against coal mining can be found around the world. Similarly, the Network for Climate Justice mentioned above, which seeks to bring together the many diverse but increasingly specific climate and energy campaigns and initiatives, also has a global presence. The clashes over energy raise questions about power relations, emancipation, justice and lifestyles. In these smaller-scale contexts, the contradictions, approaches and obstructions to action are both evident and tangible. This does not mean that political initiatives and campaigns are not (or ought not to be) similarly internationally networked and organised, but the aim is not to identify a common answer which can be applied to all problems equally.

There is no question that social disputes and conflicts are crucially important in the transition of the modes of production and lifestyles from fossil fuels to a path of sustainable development. For climate policy, this entails breaking open the hegemonic consensus on the present regulation of climate change dictated by market principles.10) This consensus perceives climate change primarily as an environmental problem, and not one that is socially mediated, and also presumes that the climate crisis can be solved using the same instruments which created it. However, it is too early to tell whether longer-term social mobilisation from below, which covers a broader range of issues and understands climate policy as energy, transport, consumer or agricultural policy, would succeed. There are contradictions and political conflicts in the civil society arena as well and frequently, their protests are short sighted.

During the UN Climate Change Conference in Warsaw 2013, the leading environmental organisations also finally realised that things could not continue on the international stage as they are now. They decided to leave the climate talks in protest. With their walk out, they have finally reacted to the internal fragmentation process in the UN climate policy regime (“Enough Is Enough”) and pointed the way to the future.11) Perhaps after the many disappointments at the 19th Climate Change Conference, they have grown tired, or reacted on the Dakota Native American wisdom: “If you discover you’re riding a dead horse, it’s time to dismount!” However, with one eye on Lima/Peru, which is hosting the 20th UN Climate Change Conference 2014, the environmentalist activists wear T-shirts which sad “Volveremos”: we’re coming back. Is this a threat?

Achim Brunnengräber is Associate Professor at the Department of Political and Social Sciences and Research Project Coordinator at the Environmental Policy Research Centre (FFU), Freie Universität Berlin. Reprinted from IPG Journal with the permission of the author. A shorter version was published in the German edition of World Economy & Development.

1) See for example the CAN intervention in the High Level Segment in Warsaw.
2) See Altvater, Elmar; Brunnengräber, Achim (eds.) (2011): After Cancún: Climate Governance or Climate Conflicts, Wiesbaden: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, VS Research Energiepolitik und Klimaschutz.
3) Jos G.J. Olivier, Greet Janssens-Maenhout, Marilena Muntean, Jeroen A.H.W. Peters (2013): Trends in global CO2 Emissions, 2013 Report, Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, The Hague.
4) SRU (2014) Fracking for Shale Gas Production: A contribution to its appraisal in the context of energy and environmental policy, Statement Nr. 18, Berlin.
5) In late 2013, after the climate change conference in Warsaw, I elaborated and comprehensively detailed this position in a commentary in Weltwirtschaft & Entwicklung (W&E 11-12/2013, www.weltwirtschaft-und-entwicklung.org, p. 7).
6) On how new priority topics and the related expert, research and working committees can also be viewed critically, see Brunnengräber, Achim; Dietz, Kristina (2013): Transformative, Political, and Normative: Towards a Re-Politicization of Adaptation Research, in: GAIA 22/4 (2013): 224-227.
7) See: German Coalition Agreement.
8) See http://ec.europa.eu/energy/doc/2030/com_2014_15_en.pdf.
9) For this reason, EUROSOLAR is calling for a new policy framework for renewables, see the resolution.
10) For a comprehensive discussion on this see Brunnengräber, Achim et al (2008): Das Klima neu denken. Eine sozial-ökologische Perspektive auf die lokale, nationale und internationale Klimapolitik, Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot.
11) See http://klima-der-gerechtigkeit.boellblog.org/2013/11/21/warschau-walk-out-ngos-verlassen-die-klimakonferenz-volveremos/.

Published: 26 Feb 2014

* SUBSCRIBE to World Economy & Development in brief >>> here.

Nepal: The emergence of a resilient democracy / CmiA: From the niche to the mass market


Top of page

Imprint General Terms and Conditions RSS Feeds Site Map