Is the West – are we – to blame for the climate crisis?

The task of science is to uncover causes and their consequences. With regard to the causes of the climate crisis and its consequences, science has already done so, and its verdict seems clear and unchallengeable. The industrial revolution begun in Europe around the middle of the 18th century with a sharp increase in the use of fossil fuels – first coal, then oil, and finally natural gas – initiated a process whose consequences would not only affect the countries that caused it, but would have an impact on the entire globe. „Our World in Data“ provides the following data. From 1750 to 2020, Europe has released a total amount of 531 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere (of which Germany 93), the U.S. is involved with 417 billion tons, China with 235, but Pakistan only with 5 and Somalia with a vanishing 0.03 (quoted from Der Spiegel 45/2022).

So there can be no doubt that the industrial revolution and the resulting increase in the standard of living in Western countries is the direct cause of what happens today, namely that entire regions in the global South will be uninhabitable within the next few years, while a number of  island states will simply be swallowed by rising waters. The greatest ecological catastrophe facing humanity since the dawn of history is man-made – and it clearly originated in Europe.

When the natural sciences talk about causes and effects, there is no mention of morality. No scientist would think of blaming the fire under a kettle for the fact that steam eventually rises and the water begins to boil. But when human societies talk about human-induced causes and their either desirable or unfavorable, perhaps even devastating consequences, most people immediately come up with a moral judgment. So it is with the climate crisis. Until the 1970s, greenhouse gases were produced almost exclusively in the countries of the West: in Europe and the United States. The moral verdict therefore seems evident to the rest of mankind; indeed, it has already been unequivocally pronounced at the Sharm El-Sheikh climate conference now under way in Egypt. The West is responsible for a global catastrophe, the devastating future effects of which cannot even be fully assessed.

For several reasons, this conclusion seems inadmissible. Causation and guilt do not necessarily go hand in hand, even when we refer to human actions. First of all, it should be noted that since the beginning of documented history, all inventions that promised to facilitate the control of nature or enemies have spread like wildfire across the globe. This applies to the early invention of fire used not only for the preparation of food but also, and to this day, for slash-and-burn agriculture (e.g. in the Amazon region), as it applies to the techniques of agriculture, which on the one hand gave rise to culture while its devastating effect soon consisted in a ten-thousand-year division of society: a minority of armed masters oppressing a majority, which had to produce the food to sustain them. Of course, weapons spread in the same manner, starting from the lance, bow and arrow, to the rifle, to cannons and, in our time, to atomic bombs, although everyone knows about the dangers associated with their use. If we want to use the concept of guilt in these cases, then we certainly cannot blame specific states or inventors – the responsibility would generally lie with our species‘ fascination with anything new, if this gives it advantages over nature or hostile conspecifics. Otherwise we would have to prosecute Russia for the fact that a man named Kalashnikov invented the rifle named after him, while Germany would have to pay for the damage caused by deforestation by means of chain saws invented and developed by some of its nationals.

The industrial revolution, the effects of which could permanently destroy the globe – not only because of the climate crisis but in view of our inexorable plundering of resources, appeared to almost no one as a threat until around the middle of the twentieth century. On the contrary, up to that time the whole world envied the West for its brilliant achievements in the spheres of technology and science – achievements, which had raised the lives of Western people from a stage of pre-modern primitiveness to a uniquely high standard of living. The fascination with this new lifestyle was so immense that – again up to about the middle of the 20th century – there was virtually no large state on earth that did not strive to imitate the Western model. Even the two great old world cultures, China and India, which had long hesitated, finally made a determined about-face and suddenly saw their own salvation and that of the entire rest of the world only in forced industrialization. They had but one mantra: Let us catch up with the West as quickly as possible. The frenetic effort explains why China would emit a whopping 235 billion metric tons of CO2 in just thirty years – nearly half as much as Europe did emit in a little less than two hundred and fifty years. We all know – and the Chinese never tire of letting the rest of the world know as well – that this instant industrialization represents a tremendous achievement that the countries of the global South should admire more than the decadent Western model. More than the meanwhile self-critical Europeans, Chinese work crews are now omnipresent: in Africa, Asia and South America as well as in Papua New Guinea, in order to dig up even the last still untouched patches of earth for resources and to upgrade it industrially. In other words, the fascination with the industrial revolution continues unabated – except that the main player spreading it over the rest of the world is no longer the West. China and India are taking the baton into their own hands – and at a much faster pace for that matter. But in contrast to Europe, where, as I said, the negative consequences of our two hundred years of „progress“ are by now known to every thinking person and even lead to a kind of doomsday mood, the enthusiasm of the Indian and Chinese masses is undiminished. The increase in the standard of living is welcomed as a manna from heaven, but the consequences are – for the time being – still ignored.

We are also closing our eyes to a further development that can hardly be covered by the concept of guilt. The fact that the world’s population has grown almost tenfold in the space of just over two hundred years – this event, unique in the history of mankind, is connected with the irrepressible optimism that the triumphant advance of technology and science (supported by the steady advance of medicine) first ignited in the countries of the West, but very soon also as hope for better times throughout the rest of the world. Even one billion people were already too much for the globe. It was not compatible with sustainability.*1* Who is to blame for this rapid increase of our species that will make the globe uninhabitable when everyone owns their own resource-guzzling car, their own water closet and their own electricity connection and then consumes as much energy and raw materials as the favored part of humanity already does? The question of guilt can hardly be answered when it comes to the propagation of our species, but an answer is possible if we want to avert the consequences of this development. Mankind will not survive without a worldwide reduction of resource depletion and the poisoning of air, water and soil.

Again, who is to blame? Those countries of the West that started “progress” at a time when mankind only expected blessings from technology and science, or those countries of Asia and soon also Africa, which strive to adopt and to enlarge it though they must be perfectly aware of its consequences? There can be talk of guilt only if we commit actions in full awareness of their harmful and possibly irreparable consequences. In this sense, all industrialized and industrializing countries without exception are to blame at least since 1973, the year when the alarming book „The Limits to Growth“ was published.

The only conceivable way out of the current impasse would be a drastic reduction in living standards in the industrialized countries and a very moderate increase in the developing ones. All would meet on an intermediate level that is ecologically justifiable. But we only need to bluntly state this demand in order to understand why all radical proposals at all environmental conferences end up as beautiful blue balloons of hope, while in reality nothing happens – certainly not in Sharm El-Sheikh after a worldwide pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

Yet there is no lack of good will – even on the part of large sections of the population in Western countries – to forego many comforts if that could help us to avert catastrophe. Unfortunately, good will alone does not help in a globalized world. Assuming that Germany were to reduce its CO2emissions to zero from one day to the next, this would only reduce the total amount of this greenhouse gas by a meager two percent – so the effect would be barely noticeable. Humanity remains divided into politically rival blocs, but in terms of its impact on the shared environment, it has been growing into a whole for at least half a century. The catastrophe of the constantly growing consumption of resources and the galloping environmental poisoning caused by their residues can therefore only be averted by joint action. All states would have to decide on a binding upper limit for both depletion and poisoning – going it alone will not achieve anything.

And this brings us to a problem that is simply unsolvable under given conditions – a geostrategic challenge. The U.S. will rather watch (it already does so) how fire consumes California and tornadoes and floods devastate the rest of the country before it voluntarily adopts an industrial disarmament that will finally give supremacy to its biggest rival, China. As far as China is concerned, this energy-hungry state will try very hard to put on a green cloak before the eyes of the world, but at the same time it will continue to constantly raise new nuclear and coal-fired power plants in order to oust the United States from its position as the world’s richest and most powerful nation. And Russia will have no qualms about expanding its industrial power to the best of its ability – this country, the largest on earth in terms of surface area, believes it has more than enough nature anyway. As for the global South, from India to Africa and South America, its attitude can be conveniently summed up in a single sentence: First we want to achieve your standard of living, then we can talk about environmental protection. But let’s not fool ourselves in Europe! Before the Germans downsize their energy-guzzling chemical factories and their car industry, thereby lowering or even loosing the incomes of millions of employees and boosting global competition accordingly, they will rather watch global warming as the minor evil (especially since they only have a two percent share in it).

Since about half a century, mankind has definitely merged into one; only it refuses until today to accept this fact and its consequences. Accusations do not help, because then all new developments and all inventions are under suspicion of guilt. Mutual help should be a matter of course, but it cannot be turned into a demand. If we want to save climate and environment, i.e. our basis of life, then there must be a world council, a world government, imposing the same restrictions on every state. Its indispensable function may well be called an eco-dictatorship, but without a show of force that applies to all states, the disaster can no longer be averted. Will such a world council be possible in the foreseeable future? Nobody can answer this question, but what we do already know should be perfectly clear. If such a body does not come into being, it is most likely that mankind’s livelihood on the blue planet will not be saved.

1 James Lovelock: Those who fail to see the connection between climate and population are either ignorant or hiding from the truth… These two huge environmental problems are inseparable and to discuss one while ignoring the other is irrational. By the end of the 18th century, the forests of Ireland and England had been largely cleared. The limit of sustainability had already been exceeded. The industrial revolution was possible only because of the extraction of coal, which was soon to be followed by that of other fossil fuels. This was to save our forests – at least for the time being. Because now we must put an end to the fossil era. The consequence? Since Russia cut its gas supplies, the forests in Europe and the erst of the world are again rapidly destroyed. In Germany, mainly for pellet production. That’s why the European Commission is being bombarded with calls to remove wood from the list of green energy sources, forests being one most important stores of CO2. I feel wretched while writing these lines, because my family heats with pellets. The dramatic nature of our situation is only now becoming apparent after the forced abandonment of fossil fuels.