Climate Change and the Good Life

Flooded street in Cambodia in September 2011. Picture: chrissam42 Licence: Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0 Original: flickr.

March 1, 2012
Georg Koessler
Global climate change represents a threat to the lives of many millions of people. Changes in the climate are reflected in specific weather conditions: droughts, floods, tornadoes, and other natural disasters that we experience or see on television can be traced back to global warming. These problems connected with anthropogenic climate change are worsening many times over: deserts are growing more quickly, rainfall is either much heavier or more seldom. There are very large regional differences and some countries will even enjoy an economic profit initially from the consequences of climate change. These countries are all in the north, however. The countries of the south will be affected excessively by climate change, even though the poorest countries contribute only a fraction of global greenhouse emissions. Only China is making headlines as the major emitter. But that is just the situation at one particular moment in time: If all CO2 emissions since 1990 are added together, then Germany, England, and the United States alone have been responsible for roughly 450,000 tons CO2, whereas China contributed “only” about 100,000 t CO2.

Even without a clear definition of the “good life” it is obvious that climate change restricts the good life for many people. When a young girl in Pakistan cannot go to school because it was washed away due to heavy rains, then she will certainly have a more difficult time translating her dreams of a better life into reality. The residents of some small island countries have to set up an entirely new life in a new place because their country has been totally swallowed by the rising sea; they will always be refugees. An old farmer in Ethiopia who planted his land for decades despite the civil war now has to move to the city because his fields have dried out and torrential rains wash away even the unfertile soil. The good life in his old age? He didn’t imagine it this way.

The urgently needed protection of the climate and of nature is only cautiously beginning and is insufficient by far. People in the north are promised that with wind power, solar energy, and biofuels they can avoid the harmful emissions while continuing to live as they have, without sacrificing growth or their consumer behavior or standard of living. At the same time, however, billions of people are striving to climb the prosperity ladder and are also justly asserting the right to a secure and comfortable life. But they are looking up to a western civilization that has forgotten how to seek and live a “good life” that is socially and environmentally sound. It used to be that industries had to continue growing only in Manchester, that buildings became ever-higher only in Chicago, or cars ever-faster only in Stuttgart. Yet for quite some time already, the drive for “more,” which is one cause of climate change, has reached the entire world. A new cell phone is important also for young people in Phnom Penh—they have to stay connected with their generation in order to keep pace. Women want new clothes also in Lagos, even though their old clothing is still good—fashions advance more quickly than people do. And in Rio de Janeiro, too, a young boy dreams of owning a big, fast car some day, thinking that is the only way for him to find the woman of his dreams. But this “imperial lifestyle,” as Ulrich Beck calls it, which gives greater priority to maintaining one’s status than to the world’s resources, does not make people any happier. On the contrary, individual consumption and profit serves to induce others to also want more. This leads to a vicious circle that drives us increasingly into a competition with one another in which all too often nature and the climate are on the losing end.

While it is obvious that the stagnated logic in the north needs to be transformed through harsh regulatory policy, good innovations, and a change in lifestyles, the task facing the south is far more difficult. It is hard to blame someone in Cambodia, Thailand, or Nigeria, who sees the luxury of the rich on television, for also wanting a piece of the cake. The affluent countries thus need to lead the way and practice sustainability. They need to show the world how an economy without CO2 emissions functions, and they need to stop defining happiness through consumerism. This would help prevent a dangerous copycat effect in the south. Regrettably, it is unrealistic to wait for this change of heart in the north, and there is no time to waste. Thus it is all the more important that people in the less affluent countries on this earth became creative on their own and think about their own vision of a “good life.” Does having a “good life” really mean a fast car, lots of clothes, or a new cell phone for you? What do you consider true values and how can you live a “good life” without having to consume more resources? What can we in the north learn from you? Can we talk, discuss, contemplate together about what really makes us happy and how we can raise our quality of life without producing more and more goods and without harming the environment? Striving for that kind of “good life” would be the best climate protection of all. 

Goerg Koessler is departmend head of Climate and Energy Policy at Heinrich Boell Foundation.