There was hope after the COP21 in Paris, in 2015. A binding agreement was made to limit global warming, preferably to 1,5 ° Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. All nations were together for a common cause! Six years later, at COP 26 in Glasgow, this hope was not dashed. But, duties had to be ‘reaffirmed’, and the gap between existing emission reduction plans and what is required to effectively reduce emissions was recognized. Today, we are heading for COP 27 in Sharm El Sheik, with new hope.

We survived a pandemic and a summer of heat waves, forest fires and droughts and as if things could not be worse, we are in the middle of a war in Europe.

In spite of all the hope, I wonder if we are heading in the right direction for stopping climate change. Are we not getting lost on the many byways and dead ends, looking nostalgically at the simpler bucolic rural past instead of at a technological solution of the future?

We know what is needed and we have all the scientific knowledge and data to make the right and urgent decisions, so why is it not happening? Why can we only renew hope? Why are we still waiting for the real and positive breakthrough which may well come too late?

It is easy to blame our powerless international organizations and national governments. States are hindered by mighty fearless corporations and unwilling, fearful citizens. In between stands a ‘green’ movement, fully aware of the lurking dangers but too often heading in the wrong direction by looking mainly at the past and asking people to give up their hard-won comfort. I want to argue that all advocacy for de-growth and less consumption will not help to save the planet. I do not claim these arguments are wrong, but I think they will remain powerless as long as they do not embrace a positive and forward-looking approach to prosperity, welfare and progress. For a majority of the world’s population, putting food on the table today far outweighs the importance of acting to prevent an event that, in theory, will happen sometime in the future. If we cannot survive starvation or grinding poverty today, who cares about the future?

My first argument is crystal clear. Yes, awareness of the threatening climate change and loss of biodiversity is growing. But far too slowly. And citizens in rich countries, the main polluters, are not ready to give up their city trips, tropical beach holidays, cars and plastic bags. The rather wealthy middle class is only a small part of the global population, but its consumption patterns do indeed play a role in overall CO2 emissions. However, convincing people to take a step backward, however necessary it may seem to be, the promise of ‘more happiness with less’ is extremely hard to sell. The current crisis shows that several behavioural changes from the last COVID year are rapidly reversed when prices of food are rising or when the possibilities for travel to open up again. In spite of decades of green warning signals, success is extremely limited. This method of asking people to give up on comfort and luxury does not work.

A second argument goes in the same direction. Why focus so much on ‘flygskam’ and keep a blind eye to the more important emissions of the whole digital sector? Why not condemn the energy-guzzling bitcoins? Why not push more for huge investments in more forests, more vegetable ‘meat’ and clean-up industries such as steel or cement?

As for poorer countries, why focus so much on ‘extractivism’ which can indeed be very damaging for the environment and for human health, instead of demanding cleaner technologies and strict monitoring of the mining of natural resources we absolutely need for our mobile phones, computers and most of all, for the clean and green energy we need? In general, green movements are more focused on consumption than on production models that are far more dangerous and damaging. For many sectors, such as mining, steel and concrete, production can be made cleaner. Many technologies are available or can rapidly be developed for cleaner energy and better agriculture. Far too often, green activists are afraid of being called ‘eco-modernists’. They prefer to defend cycle paths instead of promoting public transport. That is why they are constantly on the losing side.

As long as people are not offered real progress, more prosperity and more welfare, instead of being encouraged to ‘do with less’, not much will change. As long as real problems with mining, industry and agriculture are not tackled, not much will change. As long as the war effort is not integrated into the emission measurement, not much will change.

Moreover, it is clear that while our economic system should not be focused exclusively on growth, most countries of the South do need growth in order to give their populations a better life, offer more social protection, better jobs and better transport with sustainable and green cities. Global inequalities have to be tackled, certainly, but redistribution alone cannot be sufficient. Wealth should be created differently and spread globally. Prosperity and well-being should be available for all. Only then can we take care of nature and of the environment. So yes, we do need growth, though not blind and unspecified growth and yes, people need more prosperity. The green narrative should become a promise of progress and of better lives if it wants to be fully accepted. It should become positive instead of being a constant condemnation of all bad practices. To save the world, more prosperity is needed, especially in the South.

Does this mean we have to embrace a certain measure of eco-modernism? Yes, absolutely, in order to rapidly stop climate change and stop the loss of biodiversity. It should be careful eco-modernism, with special caution for genetic engineering since there is not yet enough research on possible negative consequences. It does not mean we have to promote nuclear energy or envisage geoengineering since in this sector we know absolutely nothing about its impact in the long term. At this moment, we already have or can develop most of the technology that is needed to stop climate change and put a halt to the loss of biodiversity. Huge investments are needed.

What else do we have to promote?

  • I have often been searching but have never found correct numbers on the resources we need for the industry we want to preserve. I recently heard that only 10 % of all the gold that is mined will go into industry. If that is true, we can easily ban 50 % of gold mining which is very polluting. Why damage the environment and human health to create jewelry for the rich? What about other resources? Is there a risk some resources such as timber and water will be depleted? Should we have a global stocktaking and an evaluation of what we really need to support a population of 10 billion? Is it true this will require a huge extension of agricultural areas? This is useful knowledge when decisions have to be taken in some sectors e.g., livestock and meat. How much water do we have for the needs of 10 billion people? Can we waste it on golf courses and private swimming pools, on livestock and Coca-Cola?

  • With the same concern for the preservation and good use of natural resources, can we design a system of global commons? Even if in the 20th century many mechanisms have been introduced to interfere in the economic decisions of sovereign countries, can we not do something similar for the management and distribution of resources? Why should this remain within national frontiers? If one region in Spain lacks water, there will surely be a reflection on how to get water from another Spanish region but why not from or to Portugal or France or Morocco? Natural resources are taken from our planet earth that belongs to all of us, so why not share them among all of us? Borders are the result of political and arbitrary decisions so why should resources be the exclusive property of nation-states? Also, as systems for national commons and dividends have already been proposed, why can the same idea not be applied to global commons? Let all inhabitants of the earth benefit from the goods this planet provides! This was the basic idea of Thomas Paine on which many current proposals for a basic income are (wrongly) based. Global commons with a global dividend might become a fairer and better system, based on our common ownership, on solidarity and rights, than the biased and insufficient redistribution of resources we now have. Of course, this is strongly related to the power relations in our world and will not be easy to introduce, but it can become a mechanism with which to avoid conflicts. In our current world, too many conflicts are caused by the competition for resources. Just think of the gas and oil from Russia which threatens Europeans with passing a cold winter without heating.

  • In that way we would indeed be heading towards system change instead of climate change. Many small steps have already been taken, such as the recognition by the United Nations of water and sanitation as human rights. Recently, a ‘clean, healthy and sustainable environment’ was also recognized as a human right by the General Assembly of the UN. The Human Rights Council is now working on the right to development and will propose a new treaty with lots of innovative and progressive thinking. These are not binding texts, contrary to what a couple of new constitutions in Latin American countries contain (such as plurinationality and the rights of ‘buen vivir’), but they can become very useful tools in the hands of global social movements and national or local governments who do want to make real progress. The past neoliberal decades have profoundly changed our political, economic and social systems with privatizations and deregulations. By taking the economy out of the realm of democratic parliamentary decision-making, our democracies have been eroded. As protests against this are multiplying, the repression of social movements has grown and we find ourselves in a dangerous negative spiral toward autocracies and dictatorships. It is now time to reverse the situation, restore and improve democracy and put the economy in the hands of citizens and public authorities. Public services, paid for by global commons dividends and fair taxes, are the most direct and rapid tool to make people accept the positive changes necessary for stopping climate change.

  • The most important thing to achieve, indeed, is to create a positive narrative of progress, prosperity and welfare, which is the only real way of convincing people to follow a green path. Social justice is the best tool available to green activists, promising insulated houses, cheaper energy, healthier workplaces, better public transport, more preventive health care and yes, longer lives! Social justice, in all its dimensions, is the open door to a sustainable world with sustainable societies. Reproductive or regenerative rights for our planet, societies and people are more important than destructive productive rights. Many useful ideas can be taken from feminist economic thinking that so far has been mostly neglected.

  • And finally, never forget, social movements have to organize and speak out. Today we are witnessing a serious setback for social movements which have again turned national and local, while more than ever, global movements and actions are necessary. Movements have to speak out with a strong global voice to demand solidarity, one planet, one humankind and to claim reproductive rights for people, for nature and for society.

Another world is possible!