Whenever I lecture on Global Heating, the question comes up in the discussion what could be done or what should be done to counter the accelerating climate catastrophe. Interestingly, the thrust of the question is usually not what governments should do, or oil companies, utilities, airlines, banks, car manufacturers agribusiness etc. The focus is on what an individual can do, rather than on the problem – what solving it actually takes. Sometimes there is a rhetorical quality to the question, regardless whether asked by:

  • a despairing Last Generation militant;
  • a pragmatist who advocates energy efficiency, solar panels, windmills and insulated windows;
  • a degrowther who opposes consumerism and fights for a less materialistic way of life;
  • a Marxist who is convinced that capitalism by definition cannot be sustainable and must be overcome before meaningful climate action is possible;
  • a “yes, but” politician who sees a problem in every solution;
  • a “we-are-doing-as-much-as-the-traffic-will bear” politician who fears that voters punish those who speak the truth.

I am struck by the widespread sense of inevitability, if not to say fatalism, that it is too late to do anything, or that the problem is just too big to be affected by a few countries, let alone by individuals.

While not dismissing out of hand these arguments and sentiments, there is more and different to the story. Framing it properly is important, and to be clear that there is no easy answer on offer. I find helpful the mental exercise to view the situation from the perspective of an intergalactic visitor, or from that of a 23rd century historian assessing where and why wrong turns and right ones were taken in the 2000s. The temporal or spatial distance brings into focus the magnitude of the problem, the effectiveness of solutions and the fairness with which their burdens are distributed between countries, continents and generations.

My future answer to the question What is to be done? will therefore be something along the following lines: Diagnosis before therapy. Therapy as per the needs of the patient, not as per the aptitude of the wannabe rescuer. Comprehending the problem – its origin, nature, magnitude, drivers, trajectory – must precede remedial action, lest it be only therapeutic activism.

To begin with, I will emphasize that Global Heating is the greatest global public policy challenge humanity has ever faced. Its origins go back to the Industrial Revolution and its consequences will reach far into the future. Its resolution requires both international cooperation as well as local mitigation and adaptation measures. Grasping the dimension of the accelerating crisis of Global Heating – its genesis, dimension and trajectory – and accepting that it is not a natural phenomenon, is the first step to doing something about it.

Global Heating is the result of measurable human activity. Burning fossil fuels causes greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, to accumulate in the atmosphere. Since carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for centuries, today’s climate crisis originates in the Industrial Revolution. Ever more fossil fuels were burned, first coal, then oil and then gas. They were and largely still are the material basis for the West’s phenomenal growth of production and consumption.

Global heating, therefore, is the flipside of what is a phenomenal economic success story and the result of legitimate, legal and mostly fruitful economic activities. The skyrocketing production of consumer goods that underpins the vigour of the world economy lifted billions out of poverty, extended life expectancy by decades and eradicated infectious diseases that, into the early 20th century, dominated life and killed an unfathomable percentage of children.

The sugar high was fed by exploiting nature. The purchase price of fossil fuels never represented their true costs. These are externalized, which means borne not by those who benefit from burning fossils, but by hapless bystanders, people in the Global South, future generations or other species.

Limiting global warming to 1.5°C is imperative and requires the world’s greenhouse gas emissions to reach net zero by 2050 or earlier. This gargantuan technical challenge is made harder by the equity aspect that some countries have caused more damage – and reaped more economic benefits – than others. Yet, deferring or obstructing the move away from fossil fuels would be the greatest political failure imaginable, inflicting ghastly destruction and costing immeasurably more than speedy mitigation. Failure to act now defers the unavoidable transformation to crisis conditions, possibly involving armed conflict. The current casual procrastination – it has been called predatory delay – will strike future generations, even future governments, as reckless.

Carbon dioxide is, in the graphic language of economics, both a flow issue (current emissions) and a stock issue (past emissions). Therefore, fair mitigation schemes must take into account not only present-day emissions, but also previous ones. Although Germany, my country, constitutes merely one percent of the global population, but is responsible for two percent of current and five percent of historical emissions. The U.S., four percent of the global population, holds 30 percent of the world’s wealth and accounts for 14 percent of current as well as 25 percent of historical emissions. The entire African continent, in stark contrast, constitutes 20 percent of the World’s population, yet generates under four percent of current and even less of historical emissions. Obviously, the responsibility for mitigating the damage resulting from the industrialization head start must in fairness take these proportions into account.

In Germany, one often hears that the country’s relatively smallness – compared with, China, say, or India – means it cannot possibly have an impact on the big picture and that we might as well not even try. But that overlooks the overall contribution to the crisis which is also oversized. 138 years ago, in 1885, Germany emitted seven tons of CO2 per capita, which is the same as China today. An accurate picture of Germany’s responsibility (or that of other industrialized countries) comes into focus only by combining past and present. In addition to reducing current emissions, which is happening rather successfully, Western countries must put their technological and financial shoulder to the wheel of a global solution. They have the capacity, and frankly the duty, to step up the climate fight. Properly framed, communicated and understood, this is more an opportunity than a sacrifice, since the repositioning towards climate neutrality will invariably be economically advantageous.

A second justice aspect complements the historical legacy, namely today’s inequality. The West has benefitted for 200 years from cheap energy that has led to a veritable addiction. Addictions are unsustainable. The rich are hooked on their lifestyle and, because it is an addiction, cannot easily change it. The poor, understandably, want to live better. However, if both prevail, the climate will collapse. Decarbonizing the world’s economies is a daunting task – technical, financial, organizational – but especially political.

The political intractability results from a lopsided distribution of burdens and benefits. Having delayed climate mitigation for decades, the steep costs of transformation have to be borne now, while the benefits will accrue later. They are, in any event, not any improvement but at best no further deterioration, which is not a political selling point in rich countries; nor are the requirements of development and the precepts of equity as regards the Global South.

Maintaining, if not enhancing, the existing material standard in the North seems non-negotiable. Aspired right collides with acquired right, even though the survival of human civilization hinges on balancing the addiction of the rich with the legitimate aspirations of the poor – while preserving a liveable environment – and doing so in the coming decade.

In the past, the demarcations were between countries. Today, the rich in Beijing and Berlin, Lagos and London, Montreal and Mumbai, enjoy comparable life styles. Big, air-conditioned houses, cars, air travel, imported food. The richest ten percent of the world generate nearly half of all emissions, the bottom fifty percent only twelve percent. Even starker, the top one percent emit over 1000 times more CO2 than the bottom one percent.

Inequality within countries has deepened in recent decades, but also between countries. That the poor need to get more and the rich need to take less is the subject of negotiations within and between countries, not between humanity and nature. Nature does not negotiate. Humanity has a weak hand and a terrible record: Since the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, as much CO2 has been added to the atmosphere as in the previous thirty thousand years. Thirty years vs. thirty thousand, that is.

Fundamental change is at odds with human psychology that also views justice as nice to have yet not essential and that accommodates abysmal conditions, provided they evolve slowly and affect many. Sudden menaces, say an attacking dog or an earthquake, wildfires, floods or a virus, call for instant remedial action. But because we are so good at adaptation and distraction, long-term threats become acceptable, even if the danger signs are code red. There are many.

Climate issues stubbornly assert themselves while the World’s attention is preoccupied by Russia’s war against Ukraine, by France’s as well as Israel’s struggle for their democratic souls, by food shortages in Africa, by inflation concerns and other ephemerals. What is done, or not done, in the next few years will decide the conditions of life on Earth for thousands of years. Yet many politicians and companies as well as a sizeable segment of the public, choose to view the accelerating climate crisis a tedious subject and a no-win issue. They wish it to go away. It is not obliging, but, instead, will exacerbate existing inequalities, trigger mass migration and invariably conflict.

As in previous years, the spring of 2023 witnessed freak events in many parts of the world: Hurricane Freddy devastated Southern Africa, tornadoes caused death and destruction across the U.S., storms in Florida triggered a 1-in-1,000 year event, California is deluged, and Europe went through a winter drought. El Niño conditions in the Pacific this year will bring Earth within a whisker of the 1.5°C dangerous heating guardrail. Ever more species are endangered. Birds may well be the figurative canaries in the climate coal mine and air travel will become bumpier. In short, the situation is unlikely to improve because the good things – the ascent of renewable energy, digitalisation and e-mobility – albeit unstoppable, are not happening fast enough.

The IPCC report published in March, synthesising years of peer-reviewed analyses, states with high confidence that there “is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.” If governments do not change current policies, Earth is on track to heat up by 2.1°C to 2.9°C this century, analysts have estimated. Keeping 1.5°C alive requires not some fine-tuning adjustments but fundamental changes that are fiercely resisted.

What is to be done? is more easily answered than who will drive the change. Reducing the emission of greenhouse gases can be achieved by an array of regulatory, incentivizing and disincentivizing government policies that are embedded in a supportive foreign and trade policy regime. Examples of regulation are tough speed limits, phasing out internal combustion engines as well as oil and gas heating and banning short-haul flights. Incentives result from investment in, say, research, renewables, infrastructure, retrofitting, reforestation and carbon capture technologies. Disincentives are carbon fees, phased-out fossil fuel subsidies and phased-in border taxes for sub-standard imports. Lastly, political muscle must be deployed to bring about change globally, and to resources properly, inter alia, the [Green Climate Fund] and the Loss and Damage Fund.

None of these policies can be implemented effortlessly, as all will be contested by powerful vested interests. People serious about doing something must be aware that they are joining a struggle. As Frederick Douglass said: “The whole history of progress … shows that all concessions yet made have been born of earnest struggle. … Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Many people are overwhelmed by doom and gloom. It is late, but not too late. The 1.5C ceiling of the 2015 Paris Agreement is less a hard stop than a milestone. Missing it should re-energize the fight for a liveable future, because preventing warming from going even higher is worth it. To be sure, a world of 2C is better than 2.3C or hotter still. Concerned citizens must face reality and fight to change it, which is why doomerism is counterproductive, as the lead researcher of Our World in Data argues: “I don’t want to talk about whether pessimism is accurate. I want to focus on whether it’s useful.”

Decarbonization, though, is less an issue of pessimism or optimism than of political economy. Like other public policy challenges, it is not a matter of private virtue, nor is it amenable to individual behavioural solutions. People are essential, of course, yet more as citizens than as consumers. Slavery was abolished, eventually, not by righteous individuals, but by military means. The U.S. gun culture will not be changed by people who refuse to own guns. Poverty will not be eliminated by the generosity of individuals who slip a few coins to panhandlers. Such actions are of course laudable, but lead to social change only if they are accompanied by sustained collective action and scaled politically. It is a marathon, not a sprint and certainly not a stroll.

The fight against Global Heating takes place in political parties, parliaments, governments, international organisations, courts, media, churches and, yes, in the streets. The choice for humanity, and the outcome of many political struggles, will be how much to invest in reducing the worst – and in adapting to the inevitable – damage, and how much suffering to tolerate. It will be everything all at once, but the important, wide open question is the mix of the three. It is my hope that the imagined intergalactic visitors, and historians in the 23rd century, will conclude that the right choices were made.