Dinosaurs ruled the world for more than 200 million years until they became extinct in a short space of time around 65 million years ago, thus disappearing from the face of the earth. What caused the sudden end of the saurian? How could these huge, powerful animals that shaped the earth over millions of years disappear so quickly when there were other species, such as sharks, mammals and even tiny insects, which still inhabit the world today?
Did Charles Darwin not postulate that “the fittest will survive?” Darwin meant something completely different with his catch phrase survival of the fittest. The species that survive are those that are best at adapting to their environment. That was precisely the problem of the dinosaurs. The environment changed radically at the end of the Cretaceous period. While small, fast and flexible mammals, insects, birds or fish were able to adapt to the changing conditions, the colossal and cumbersome saurians perished.
Mankind faces a similar situation today. Anthropogenic climate change is becoming critical. It is a disease that could drive the human race into ecological self-destruction. The dinosaurs of our time are the large charcoal and nuclear reactors. Even though they have only come into existence in the last 50 to 100 years, they were associated with progress for a long time. Yet they are now outdated. They do not fit into a society which is viable and capable of development and which must reduce and not increase its energy demands as well as quickly achieve the transition to a solar economy. The large power plants are part of a declining linear economy that achieves the opposite.
Large power plants that are slow to ramp up and difficult to adjust have no future in a world of finite commodities and overloaded drains. We need small and fast solar energy production solutions which generate power where it is needed and which can be meticulously regulated and integrated into the environment without destroying it.
What we don’t need are poorly insulated houses which waste energy. We need zero-energy houses or even plus-energy houses as well as an intelligent network of local and district heating providers.
It is irresponsible to increase the amount of cars, let alone SUVs which use 20 to 30 percent more fuel than vehicles with the same engine power. What we need is a sophisticated transport system that avoids unnecessary mobility and minimises the use of resources. The small number of examples for energy usage relating to electricity, heating and mobility can also be applied to other sectors, such as agriculture, where fundamental changes are long overdue.
In the last century, huge economic growth brought great prosperity, quality of life and democracy to parts of the world. To this end, however, resources were massively exploited and natural carbon sinks were overburdened. As anthropogenic climate change has shown, we are now nearing a natural barrier which, if surpassed, will lead to disaster. The recent advancements also took place at a cost to the environment and the Third World. The human race is now at a turning point, because previous solutions are no longer an option.
The ecological limits of growth, the decision on whether we will move away from fossil fuels as well as the old growth economy will determine whether there will be a century of new violence and bitter conflicts over resources or whether we will experience a century of sustainable development. The deciding factors will be whether a social-ecological transformation is possible in our own country, whether we can turn the EU into a sustainability union and whether we can pave the way for more global climate protection, thereby enhancing financial and technological cooperation between industrialised, emerging and developing nations.
Today, mankind finds itself in a “search movement” phase, a term which was coined by Oskar Negt to describe current times. People need direction so that they know what to change and what to preserve. They also need guidance on how to shape the economy and society in order to secure a good future. Even if growth compulsion seems all-encompassing, we are not at its mercy. The market is not a force of nature and globalisation is not fate. Social-ecological transformation is possible. Our time could become the hour of democracy.
The solution lies in ecology. It is the catalyst for more democracy, justice and a new understanding of innovation. Responsibility does not just lie with the industrialised nations which are as dependent on high resource consumption as a junkie is on heroin. All countries must work together to avert a climate disaster which would have uncalculated yet drastic effects. The damage to our environment is already raising existential questions in many regions across the world. These include issues of poverty, hunger, uninhabitability and migration.
This is the point where the discrepancy between knowledge and action must be overcome. A social-ecological transformation must preserve and transform. Above all, it must pay heed to the limitations presented by the laws of nature. The guiding principle of sustainable development hereby shows us the way, questioning where our responsibilities lie. This principle needs to be at the forefront of political action at all levels – regional, national and international.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most important greenhouse gas – all other gases are relative to CO2. Despite the Kyoto Protocol of 1995, the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the troposphere has continued to increase in recent years, even more than the sceptical estimates of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had anticipated. Unless greenhouse gas emissions are completely reduced, it will not be possible to prevent global warming from going up by more than 2 degrees Celsius in the next 20 years.
Limiting global warming to 2 degrees Celsius is not enough to ensure fair and effective climate protection. The goal needs to be lowered in order to protect people living in the poorer African regions, on the Pacific island states or in the Asian river deltas. This is why the Paris Agreement states “less than 2 degrees”. In 1991, the German Bundestag agreed on a “maximum warming limit” of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Otherwise, the consequences would be severe.
In this context, we are critical of the 2-degrees-Celsius target which is perceived as just about tolerable. For many poor regions that do not have the financial or technological means to protect themselves, this is already disastrous.
The knowledge has been there but has not been acted upon for a long time. Despite these findings, a lot of time was wasted and unimaginable efforts would now be required to reach the 1.5-degrees-Celsius target. However, it is clear that a higher concentration of greenhouse gases will lead to a radical deterioration of life on earth, in particular because of more extreme weather conditions.
Yet even the insufficient 2-degree target was not really achieved in Paris. The national reduction plans, which were presented to the UN convention in Paris by the 195 member states of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, will achieve a greenhouse gas reduction that will lead to a temperature increase of around 2.8 degrees Celsius. Moreover, the likelihood of this becoming a reality is only around 60 percent. Although there are review periods, there are no sanction mechanisms. The national measures are voluntary obligations, and experience shows that they are often neglected and calculated favourably.
Taking natural deviation into account, today’s temperature increase is already 1 degree above pre-industrial levels. In the next four to five decades, large-scale afforestation, the protection of wetlands and an ecological treatment of soil can slow but no longer stop the warmth that has been “stored” in the climate system. The carbon budget, which the atmosphere can still absorb to remain under 1.5 degrees, has thus become small.
This shows that climate protection is no longer just about precautionary measures. When the United Nations issued the first warnings about global climate change in the mid-eighties, it would have been a lot easier to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees from a political point of view, as was suggested by the German Bundestag in March 1991. Yet not enough was done, and the discrepancy between knowledge and action continued to grow.
Today, there is a lot of doubt as to whether the warming process can be stopped before reaching 2 degrees Celsius. This is the benchmark that industrialised and emerging nations have agreed upon after years of discussions, even though this means sacrificing part of the world already. Doubts about the effectiveness of climate protection are growing in the face of climate change acceleration. There are suspicions that, once again, unsuitable ecological escape routes are being sought. The Paris Agreement speaks of “climate-neutral solutions”. It is not clear what that means. In the context of past experiences, there is reason to believe that there will be more CCS (carbon capture and storage) or nuclear energy but no crucial modification of our energy systems.
Failure to limit the increase in temperature in the last two decades has turned climate protection into a daunting task today. The most important prerequisites are to put an end to the burning of fossil fuels and to induce a social-ecological transformation.
In the last 600,000 years, average global temperatures have varied between an ice age with an average temperature of around 10 degrees Celsius that turned the earth into an ice tundra and an interglacial period with temperatures of around 16.5 degrees which was described as a blossoming landscape, a paradise or as the Garden of Eden. These variations took place on a scale of merely 6 degrees Celsius.
An additional 2 to 4 degrees at the end of our century, or even a 6-degree increase if viewed pessimistically, would add a further interglacial period on top of an existing one. This will be a dramatic experiment with the earth’s fragility. In the aforementioned historical variation, the CO2 levels in the lower atmosphere varied between 180 ppm (parts per million) and 300 ppm. Today, we are measuring close to 400 ppm.
In the last two years, the concentration has increased by 2 ppm per year. Fifteen years ago, it was only at 1.2 ppm per year. At the same time, the levels of other important greenhouse gases, such as methane and ozone, are also rising. Moreover, the rise in temperature has led to an increase in evaporation. Water vapour, however, leads to an additional moist greenhouse effect.
The time frame in which disaster can still be averted has become small. Climate change has increased the pressure of migration in the Third World, especially in Africa and East Asia. This will lead to a global increase in conflicts, even in affluent countries that will seal themselves off and enforce more extensive border controls.
It would be a game of Russian roulette if some countries were to speculate that they would be less affected by global warming. A temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius will not induce a pleasant Mediterranean climate. Instead, it will cause extreme weather conditions that will lead to crop shortfalls, the extinction of species, flooding, hurricanes and droughts. In our country, we would have to deal with temperatures akin to those of the summer heatwave in 2003.
The most important answer to these challenges is sustainability. To sum it all up, it is about building a new house for our civilisation. Ecology is the foundation, social justice ensures stable statics and the design of the house is attributed to the creative forces developing and making use of scientific and technological advances.
Sustainable development begins by extending the time perspective. This is done by satisfying the needs of the current generation to such an extent that it enables future generations to do the same. This new path is one of targeted growth and contraction which is designed to create a new and lasting balance. Sustainability thereby focuses on a collective ethic of responsibility as well as on more democracy and participation.
In order to keep global warming below 2 degrees, and thus prevent the worst effects of climate change, a clear turnaround in terms of global greenhouse gas emissions must take place immediately. A carbon dioxide budget to stabilise the climate system would be required. If structured fairly, it would amount to 2 tonnes per year. Germany, the country that is currently celebrating itself as a climate saviour, is also far from achieving this goal. If emissions continue at the current rate, the limit will be reached by 2020. After that, there would have to be zero emissions of CO2.
If we miss this last opportunity to prevent disaster, the warming of the atmosphere will lead to an irrevocable, self-perpetuating catastrophe in many parts of the world.
We advocate for a strategy that is threefold and includes national, European and global dimensions:
We need a social paradigm shift which renews the processes as well as the content of democratic decision-making. A successful transformation process will allow citizens to play a role in shaping their own future. This project will not succeed if it is steered by the political, scientific or economic elite. It will strengthen the legitimacy of democratic structures, governments and parliaments and, at the same time, embed them within a supportive and demanding culture of participation.
Participation is a key success factor for shaping a sustainable future. Such a paradigm shift demands a consistent change in attitude from politics and economics as well as from every citizen.
This process can, must and will succeed. If we live sustainably in the future, we will achieve a fivefold dividend. We