National egoism versus planetary responsibility


Overcoming the climate crisis is fundamentally incompatible with our understanding of sovereignty.

Joschka Fischer, project group

August 24, 2021, 1:30 p.m.

Last changed: August 24, 2021, 1:34 p.m.

Humanity – especially in industrialized countries and large emerging economies – is responsible for global warming. Photo: Project Syndicate


Humanity – especially in industrialized countries and large emerging economies – is responsible for global warming. Photo: Project Syndicate

The man-made climate crisis is making headlines this summer. Record-breaking heat waves occurred along the US and Canadian west coasts; torrential rains and floods (and significant losses) in Central Europe and along the Yangtze River in China; and forest fires in Greece, Turkey, southern Italy, North Africa and even Siberia. In addition, this month climate scientists warned that the Atlantic Gulf Stream – the great heat pump for Western Europe – may be weakening.

In addition, in the middle of this summer of extreme weather events, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sixth assessment report (postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic). In much clearer language than in the past, the world’s leading group of climate scientists has made it clear that humanity – especially in the industrialized and large emerging countries – is responsible for global warming.

The report also raises serious questions about whether we can achieve the Paris Agreement goal of limiting temperature rise to 2 ° C (but preferably 1.5 ° C) above pre-industrial levels. The IPCC concludes that this is still possible, but only if we act decisively and promptly to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions (especially carbon dioxide).

Unfortunately, there is little evidence of this. And so we don’t forget that the Paris goals are relatively minimal goals that would only slow down the climate crisis, but not end it decisively. The countries that signed the agreement in December 2015 did so at their own request and can determine their nationally determined contributions at their own discretion. Presumably some of the signatories secretly hoped that the climate crisis would develop more slowly and less intensely than before. You lost that bet and now you are running out of time to act.

Joschka Fischer. Illustration: TBS


Joschka Fischer.  Illustration: TBS

Joschka Fischer. Illustration: TBS

The central puzzle of the climate crisis is that we have to rely on the structures of a global system based on the egoism of the nation states. Joint action to avert a common threat on behalf of all of humanity must take place through the narrower, older channels of sovereignty. The idea of ​​global responsibility to maintain the basis for our common survival is alien to such a system. Getting to grips with this separation will be the great challenge of the 21st century.

In its assessment of the impending consequences, the IPCC implies that we must fundamentally reshape the world economy within the current decade. The technological and economic hurdles are enormous, but the political challenge is no less daunting.

The more obvious the climate crisis becomes in people’s everyday lives, the clearer it becomes that time is running out. The topic will increasingly drive international politics and force a reorientation away from traditional geopolitics and towards a new renunciation of shared planetary responsibility. After all, no state – no matter how powerful it is – can solve this problem on its own. The task requires the solidarity and cooperation of all humanity.

Unfortunately, the history of our species shows that truly inclusive global cooperation is not one of our strengths. To be successful under this time pressure, the great powers must come together and demonstrate global leadership. These include the two superpowers of the 21st century, the USA and China, but also the European Union, India and others.

The current rivalry between the United States and China is primarily taking place in the technology area, a sector that is particularly important in overcoming the climate crisis. The idea that humanity has a planetary responsibility presupposes that it has the knowledge and the power to control the biosphere. This requires comprehensive structures for the collection, exchange and use of data – if possible in real time.

But here, too, there is no sign of progress in this direction. On the contrary, the rivalry between the great powers has once again become the dominant factor in world politics and international events. State egoism remains at the forefront, and it is unlikely that two powers that are heading for confrontation in all other areas will work out areas for cooperation on climate change. Such an attempt would most likely undermine rather than strengthen the mutual trust needed to tackle the climate crisis.

It is true that the West has made serious mistakes in its behavior towards China. By openly pursuing its economic interests, it deliberately overlooked China’s geopolitical interests and intentions. But we shouldn’t reinforce past mistakes by making new ones. Just as we shouldn’t revert to the old, flawed Western China policy, nor should we deny that the climate crisis must be at the strategic center of international politics this century. Otherwise, all of humanity will pay the price for our failure in leadership.

This is not the time to practice traditional power politics. Today’s great powers must take steps to take on planetary responsibility. And to be successful, they have to take these steps together.


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