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Global Ideas

On Climate Change, an academic call to arms

While world leaders are debating climate change in Warsaw, academics from around the world have issued a clear call to European politicians to take decisive action on climate change.

Wedged between the imposing walls of the US embassy, a luxury hotel and upscale eateries next to Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate, the city’s Academy of Arts appears an unlikely venue for an activist meeting taking aim at nothing less than the global capitalist order. But during a conference at the venerable institution, some of the leading thinkers on climate change did just that. Organized by the Berlin-based Hertie School of Governance and the London School of Economics to coincide with the UN climate summit in Warsaw, the bi-annual Dahrendorf Symposium brought together politicians, economists and academics from around the world to debate the question of Europe’s role in fighting climate change.

Named in honour of the LSE’s long term director, German-British sociologist and Liberal politician Lord Ralf Dahrendorf, it seemed fair to expect that European institutions and policy regimes would come under some scrutiny at the gathering. But it did not stop there. Instead, a leading economist on the UN’s climate body asked that more cues be taken from Karl Marx. A decorated scientist and Club of Rome co-president lambasted the “false religion of renewables”. An institute director from the LSE spoke of the need “to take on power and vested interests” - a call that a law professor formulated more sharply as the demand to rethink global capitalism “that privileges the corporation over the human being”.

Climate debate has broadened

The tone of the debate has changed. The rhetoric that decision-makers in politics and business were used to from the streets - and which they have largely ignored - has reached the corridors of academia and think tanks. More so than ever before. It seems an inevitable outcome of the fact that the climate debate itself has escaped the clutches of a narrow scientific, technological and environmental(ist) discourse about rising temperatures, green energy technology or endangered species. It is a debate, that has now broadened to include issues closer to people’s lives: the impact of climate change on local livelihoods, the erosion of communities, economic inequality, or lacking access to affordable energy.

Mary Robinson talking to a crowd of reporters (Photo: DW)

Climate change is a justice issues, says the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Mary Robinson

And it’s no longer just scientists and economists who are the main contributors to the debate. Broadening its scope means that more ordinary people are being heard - such as in the Climate Justice Dialogue run by the Mary Robinson Foundation founded by the former Irish president who also attended the Berlin meeting. “In the dialogue, there were representatives of indigenous groups, representatives of slum dwellers, as well as former heads of state. What they have all got in common was passion, a sense of urgency and a sense of justice,” Deutsche Welle was told by Robinson, who headlined the panel on social and legal aspects of climate change.

Academic work and public action

And it is in this wider conversation that academics need to take an activist stance, first and foremost, by ensuring their work directly informs public debate and public action, leading sociologist and current LSE director Craig Calhoun told Deutsche Welle.

“People don’t see any answers coming from conventional politics. The two biggest arenas that matter - political institutions and business - fail to offer meaningful solutions,“ Calhoun said. “Environmentally-friendly produced clothes, say, or more bicycle paths in cities, are things people quickly spot as superficial solutions that don’t measure up to the scale of the problem.”

Question assumptions, provide concrete proposals

To translate this broader debate into tangible results may require both - questioning received wisdom and offering concrete proposals at the same time. Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, a biologist and co-chair of the Club of Rome, put an axe to one of the most cherished convictions prevalent in climate policy: that the more renewable energy we have, the better. The faith we put in renewables is a “false religion,”he declared, because while aimed at replacing oil, gas and coal it avoids the most important issue: the price of energy itself.

Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker giving lecture (Foto: Auswärtiges Amt)

Faith in renewables is "false religion", says Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker

“In Japan, the steep rise in energy prices in the 1970s drove technological developments aimed at using energy more efficiently. A decade or two later the country was among the chief global innovators. In China, we see the beginning of a similar situation,” Weizsäcker said. The message was clear: Put a higher price tag on energy, and you’ll get both - less carbon emissions and better business.

Reframing climate change as justic issue

The downside is, that it is not immediately obvious how a broad debate about climate change benefits people and communities on the ground. A starting point may be to look at how climate change harms them: by exacerbating existing problems like poverty and inequality, noted Mary Robinson. Reframing the climate debate as a question of justice and equality therefore is a vital step, her panel concluded. Because then, there is a very potent tool to negotiate and achieve concrete and binding results: the law.

Reformulating the public conversation about climate change as a problem of climate justice, is one of several recommendations to come out of the Dahrendorf Symposium. Others amount to a comprehensive call to European governments to get their act together and formulate a common position on several fronts: international climate talks, Europe-wide energy policy and EU climate targets.

A cue from history

But will politicians listen? Ultimately they will, as Calhoun suggests pointing out historical precedent. “It needs a connection between these intellectual and policy debates and social movements. We have seen this in the past. This was true for the labor movement and it was true of the women’s movement.”

With the event drawing to a conclusion behind the Academy’s massive glass front overlooking the Brandenburg Gate, the city’s symbol of historic change, this intellectual call to arms could not have been clearer.