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Climate action is unlikely to adequately relieve the climate crisis

Uniting to address climate change around the world
Alexa von Ow

PhD student, African Leadership Centre

05 November 2022

In the past months, the compromised supply of energy resources on account of the Ukraine war has dominated headlines, while the most extreme weather events in the African region have been largely unreported. Since the beginning of 2022, approximately 4,000 people died in the wake of drought and famine, floods, storms, or lethal heatwaves. Such fallacies go against the unilateral agenda’s guiding principle to ‘leave no one behind’. COP27 will see those framing the trajectory of global climate development rally together again, but why have past gatherings failed to be effective?

Since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, the count and magnitude of extreme weather events have surged to unprecedented levels, while global consumption of natural resources continues to exceed planetary boundaries by 1.75 and most recently, micro plastics were found in human breast milk. Carbon emissions from primary energy use (coal, liquefied natural gas, oil and other mineral-based products) have also soared to a historical apex – an all-time high mostly stimulated by Chinese consumption. Despite a momentum in public readiness to act, the initiatives designed to mitigate the ramifications of man-made climate change fail to succeed.

Here are three reason why the climate summits are failing.

Infinite growth versus planetary boundaries

Historically, climate action has been linked with the very same actors causing adverse climate change to begin with. Unconstrained economic growth, as the core denominator of neoliberalism, remains the key driver of global development agendas and consequently, climate action is thus conceptualised along the same value.

This notional tradition has been retained throughout all 26 Conferences of the Parties without ever having considered capitalism to be the very cause of the climate conundrum. Sparing finitely available resources while targeting infinite economic growth is an oxymoron, which, by definition, even solar farms, electric cars or windmills cannot resolve.

Rephrasing economic progress to check overshoot

While many ideas are brought forward about how to tackle global warming, desertification and the acidification of oceans, issues to do with post-industrial causes are addressed marginally, while humanity continues to react rather than reflect. Industrialisation involved technological advancement whereby productivity rose exponentially, and economies of scale made commodities affordable for the have nots as well. Instantaneously, possession and ownership were publicly available. Though narrowing the income gap (in the Global North) was desirable, no threshold delimiting a reasonable scope between unsatisfied and fully supplied demands was ever determined.

As a result, thus far the unrestrained imperative to grow and multiply property exceeds planetary boundaries. This is the case when the pace at which human activity consumes bio-resources outstrips the required duration of eco-systems to regenerate and ‘digest’ man-made pollution. Also known as ‘overshoot’, this phenomenon receives peripheral attention within the space of climate discourse. Surely, initiatives tailored to reduce emissions (e.g. Net-Zero Economies) – including models relying on negative emission technologies – have an important role to play. However, promoting material growth while sermonising environmental protection is like fighting fire with fire.

Economics, which have been the ‘mother tongue used to manage our planetary home’, appear to be outdated. Spotlighting Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the ultimate measure of progress, while collectively overlooking the notorious overshoot will worsen the already low prospect of future generations experiencing good health, dignity, freedom and prosperity. Safeguarding planetary integrity is inextricably linked to reduced consumption and ‘controlled economic contraction’. Contemporary frameworks for progress, growth and wealth thus necessitate a paradigm shift and notional adjustment with the objective to transition the climate crisis within planetary boundaries.

Problem-solving rationales

The climate crisis is a complex problem and as such does not offer any quick or calculative solutions. Even so, many times decision makers fail to recognise the latter but instead feel compelled to rush solution-offering approaches, since ‘doing something is better than doing nothing at all’.

Individual leaders must fill the vacuum by virtue of asking the right questions in lieu of offering solutions. In doing so, the pressure of individual leadership to provide right answers is transferred to a collaborative process, which engages those communities affected by the complex problem, i.e. the climate crisis.

What’s next?

Prioritising issues now, while still manageable, can mitigate their escalation to complex, hence unsolvable problems.

Pursuing collective solutions is fundamental to achieving any progress at COP27 and beyond. This means coming to terms with complex uncertainty, reflecting on current notions of progress, addressing the overshoot elephant in the room, and finally prompting leaders to search for alternative options through a collaborative effort.

Read other insights from our climate series

This piece is part of a series of insights and reflections on climate, sustainability and adaptation. 

Read the other pieces in the climate series

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