I went to the European Institutions to find out what is being done to tackle climate change – The (not so) surprising answer is nothing.Leave a comment
March 27, 2019 by Cláudia
“Europe at the forefront of the fight against climate change” was the name of the session. Pretty self-explanatory. To say that my expectations were not met is a severe understatement. I wasn’t expecting anything particularly revolutionary or even climate action at a scale that could actually prevent catastrophic warming – it is an official institution after all. But from following the European Parliament’s social media and journal, which keeps spreading messages about the urgency of climate action and the need to restructure society, I was expecting some actual policies in terms of renewable energy at the very least. In hindsight, I should have known that I would just waste one hour of my life listening to the former Head of the Climate Action Unit parrot capitalist and investment based climate “solutions” and how amazing global climate agreements are (with no legal repercussions).
The beginning of the presentation furthered my hope that the EU institutions were actually moving in the right direction. He misled my judgement by starting the presentation by talking about the school strikes for climate, where they were happening and what they were demanding. He encouraged us to be aware of the strikes and claimed that the EU had the strikers’ concerns as a priority. This was consistent with the communication fostered by the EU communication channels – climate change is real, climate action is urgent and the younger generations are leading the way.
After this very promising introduction, he went on to glorify the European climate action by showing some really fancy graphics showing that the European’s greenhouse gas emissions decreased 23% from 1990 to 2016, which is only possible because Europe has been outsourcing emissions to non-EU countries, especially China and India (see reference 1). Even though the IPCC gives us a gloomy view of what’s to come, he says, the good news is that we have succeeded in decoupling of emissions from growth. This means, according to the green growth narrative, that wealth, production and consumption can keep growing while emissions decrease, through energy efficiency methods and green financing. Firstly, I don’t see how continuous growth can be a good thing in an already over-consumerist society. Secondly, this is just categorically not true. More production equals more energy use, waste and emissions. As simple as that. When European countries outsource the production of consumer goods (by having them being made in countries such as China, Bangladesh or India), the emissions that come with the production are also outsourced, making it seem like it is those countries that are using more than their share when in truth it is to maintain our own consumerist way of life.
After this ovation of the European policies (which remained unnamed with vague hinges of “green investment” and “market-based solutions”) he went on to talk about the Paris Agreement (which is a whole different essay in itself) and how personal lifestyle choices can make a difference (which I’ve addressed before).
The most interesting part of the presentation, and the one who made it even remotely worth it to sit there for an hour, was when his presentation ended and people started to ask the real questions. About the current economic system, about the energy sector, about how to tackle corporations and their political power, about the climate agreements, the notion of climate justice (utterly missing from his presentation!), transportation and food production. When faced with very self-evident and straightforward questions, the speaker deflected every single one of them and, not content with not answering literally any of the questions he was asked, he (probably mind-boggled by unexpected questions) gave some blatantly idiotic answers.
Example: When he was asked about the supposedly legally binding nature of the climate agreements, he answered that there isn’t a fine for non-compliance but that there is an element of peer-pressure between the countries when you don’t comply with the emissions decrease (literally!). Another example of a fragrantly misinformed (and even offensively blasé) answer was when he was asked about the outsourcing of emissions. My guess is that he was caught off guard and he wasn’t expecting anyone to mention their complete gloss-over of this issue in the very optimistic European graphs because after mumbling incomprehensibly he say literally “Well, China is also getting money and this is creating jobs in China and that is something good for the Chinese people through these emissions”.
Someone else asked about what the Commission is doing in terms of systematic economic change away from a capitalist paradigm and we finally got a clear and honest answer: The Commission’s vision entails that there is no contradiction between the economy and the environment/climate change (direct quote: “We are seeing the fight against climate change as one big investment”).
Eventually, I decided to contribute, even though I am terrified of speaking in public so I raised my hand and, with my voice cracking and trembling, I asked about the contradiction between the policies that are being carried out (or the lack of them) and the type of systematic change that is being demanded by climate activism. He made it very clear that the position of the European Commission is within a capitalist system, even though he recognizes that “more profound change is necessary”.
After the ray of hope that was seeing that the audience was not buying this discourse for one second, the debate ended up with both the moderator and the speaker calling on everyone to make changes in their own lives, to bring their reusable bottle and changing one meal a week to a vegetarian meal. Come on.
Not that I don’t want to encourage people to live a simpler life, transition into a plant-based diet and stop consuming unnecessary stuff. Yes, we need to do that in order to ensure climate stability. But that is the tiniest drop in the ocean of the problem that is climate change and the ones who can implement the actual changes that we need in order to get back on track are the ones in political and economic power. So when political institutions claim that their action plan is to encourage individual behavioural change, that just means they will do nothing (and then they will take credit for the people that actually make an effort to change!).
Climate change is a challenge with a scope so monumental that will require our whole society to change – our economic system, the way we eat, the way we go places, the way we spend our free time. And we don’t have time to take a century to get it together. We have to start radical change right now and we need it to be the real deal.
The problem with this institutional discourse that makes it seem like we are on the right track is that it will highly decrease the likelihood of taking action, since it feels like it is already being taken care of. Contrarily to what it may seem at first sight, it is detrimental that the institutions talk so much about tackling contemporary social problems. It’s what happened with the Millennium Development Goals – it sounds good and in the surface it seems like we are on the right track, but when you look at it, a few units have been created and dismantled, there has been funding for missions and meetings but in the end everything is the same.
All in all, my visit to the European institutions was not a complete waste of time. It reminded me how important it is to look past the institutional narrative and look for what is actually being done. It gave me hope to see that the younger generation is fierce and not afraid to ask the right questions. And it strengthened my belief that change will not spontaneously come from the top-down and that we as citizens have to stay together and demand, loud and clear, real change.
In case you’re interested in seeing the full conference, access the Session 4: Europe at the forefront of the fight against climate change.