Claiming back our Climate

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Climate Change | Wij Dromen Meer Bomen | Claiming the Climate
“Wij Dromen Meer Bomen” (We Dream More Trees), read a placard by a young lad as he rallied along with more than 65,000 people — yes, you read that right — in Brussels, making his voice heard amidst a clamouring to arrest climate change and thus save the planet. This evening one could sense the collective imagination of a people who were shaped by a vision for a better tomorrow. As the UN Climate Change Conference (2-14 December 2018) — better known as COP24 — got underway in Katowice today, there was a need for a conscientious public to urge their government representatives to strive for a more stringent implementation of the Paris Agreement 2015.1 The Belgians sought to do this through the Climate Express vzw, a non-government group of volunteers that mobilised the public and made their voice heard. “Claim the Climate,” read the general mood of the evening. Over the past few years, there has been growing consensus among the scientific community that global warming and climate change are anthropogenic — yes, they are manmade! According to an influential 2013 and 2016 study by John Cook et al that analysed the abstracts of 11,944 peer-reviewed papers on climate change, over 90 percent of them stated that climate change was anthropogenic.2 Similarly, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — a United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change — tabulates comprehensive assessment reports on climate change, its potential impacts and possible response that in turn help us see the correlation between climate change and human action. Scientific data like the historical “global land and ocean temperature anomalies” (see table below) with regard to climate change are now increasingly accessible to the lay person.
Global Land and Ocean Temperature Anomalies
Global Land and Ocean Temperature Anomalies
Deeply convinced of how the negative impacts of climate change have put our planet at stake, I decided to express my solidarity with my host country, Belgium, in our efforts to save it. So I pulled out my cycle this morning and joined a group of over 100 enthusiastic cyclists from Critical Mass Leuven as we pedalled our way to Brussels, joining the Critical Mass of cyclists from the Brussels-North station to the Cinquantenaire park, where the movement unfolded. But why did a Goan join a rather Belgian movement? — someone along the way was interested to know. Well, to begin with, climate change is not specific to a local region but is in fact an interconnected global phenomenon. We are in it together and thus need to express our “solidariteit” (solidarity) with one another.
The Critical Mass from Leuven cycled to Brussels for the climate march, Claim the Climate.
The Critical Mass from Leuven cycled to Brussels for the climate march, Claim the Climate.
What was on the agenda today? The vision propounded by the Climate Express was translated into six requirements: 1. Spoorverandering (a change of track), 2. Ambitieus klimaatplan (an ambitious climate plan) 3. Power to the People, 4. Iedereen mee (getting everyone on board), 5. Internationale Solidariteit (international solidarity) and 6. Een versnelling hoger (moving one gear higher).3 What is striking about these requirements is that they place human beings and the environment at the centre — not just as those who are affected but much more as actors who are capable of effecting change. This calls for a participatory citizenry that takes all stakeholders into account and envisions a climate plan in the long term, rather than mere five-year voting patterns. For example, it proposes energy to be 100 percent renewable by 2050. That’s good ambition! But an ambitious climate plan also needs to be backed by research, and its implementation be measurable if one would want to realise the goals. While the first three requirements are very policy-specific, the last three speak of generosity in its intent and a call for greater commitment. This, to me, reveals the character of a people and merits attention.
Velomobiles make their appearance among the cyclists. Helen (left), I learnt, regularly drives her blue velomobile to Brussels.
Velomobiles make their appearance among the cyclists. Helen (left), I learnt, regularly drives her blue velomobile to Brussels.
While we examine climate change in terms of global warming and ecological imbalances, we often tend to overlook these imbalances with regard to societal inequality. As is so aptly highlighted in its statement, the Climate Express notes that the poor and the disadvantaged are the greatest victims of global warming, even though they might be the least responsible for it. Admittedly, how does one safeguard the interests of those who are socially marginalised and lack the necessary skills or capital to make a transition to a more sustainable livelihood? These do not have easy solutions, but generosity and commitment would be key requirements in addressing them. To cite an example, the Climate Express proposes Belgium to contribute 500 million euro per year by 2020 to the Green Climate Fund — a new global fund created by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to support the efforts of developing countries to respond to the challenge of climate change. That figure amounts to about 0.11 percent of Belgium’s GDP (2017)4 and an over 800 percent increase of Belgium’s current contribution of $66.9 million.5 Though it proposes to do so by reorienting fossil fuels subsidies and other innovative transaction taxes, this contribution would reflect a decisive shift in policy and implementation. In the wake of the COP24, it might be interesting to see how much of such monies are eventually committed by other developed countries. It is in this sense that the Climate Express strives for “een versnelling hoger”, to shift gears, and take a pioneering leadership role in the climate change negotiations at COP24.
"Velomobiles are ecological as well as a comfortable mode of commuting to the city," says Johan who uses his velomobile (velomobiel) regularly.
“Velomobiles are ecological as well as a comfortable mode of commuting to the city,” says Johan who uses his velomobile (velomobiel) regularly.
Reading through the six requirements of Climate Express made me reflect on another document by Pope Francis — his encyclical Laudato Si’ — published in May 2015, a few months before the Paris Agreement.6 Although the document borrows elements from a Christian tradition, it approaches climate as a common good and thus addresses itself to a wider humanity. Backed by findings from scientific research, the document draws a link between pollution and climate change especially on the issues of water and the loss of biodiversity. Moreover, the document makes itself forthright in addressing global inequality and our weak responses to it. It argues that the failures of global environmental summits are a result of a politics subject to technology and finance, where anything that hinders economic growth tends to be side-lined by governments.7 Laudato Si’ laments that this has resulted in a technocratic paradigm that threatens to replace rather than foster the relationship between humankind and its environment. What it then proffers is an approach towards “integral ecology” where ecology and environment are interconnected to our human and social dimensions of life.

We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.

Laudato Si’, 139

An “integral ecology” approach is very much a part of what Climate Express proposes, though it doesn’t necessarily use this language. Both also rely on the principle of the common good. In the words of Pope Francis, this calls for “justice between generations” where we see the world as a gift — not  in a purely utilitarian way, in which efficiency and productivity are entirely geared to our individual benefit — that demands intergenerational solidarity.8 How do we seek to leave this world we have inherited? In this regard, the “ambitieus klimaatplan” of the Climate Express might well be on track. However, what ambition does require is intent! Its intent should not just be with “what” it seeks to achieve but also “with whom” it seeks to achieve it. Will the plan’s ambition belie itself of its responsibility to the marginalised, or would it rather partner with them more effectively, in solidarity? There are reasons to believe that Belgium could gravitate towards the later. Apart from being a strong economy measured in terms of its GDP, Belgium enjoys a high sense of wellbeing as indicated in the OECD Better Life Index.9 Similarly, the Social Justice Index ranks Belgium well above the EU average.10 While a Better Life Index does not necessarily translate into such commitment, the Social Justice Index does reflect on the possibility of such a commitment to the marginalised, that in turn also results in societal wellbeing.
EU Social Justice Index 2017 | Belgium
EU Social Justice Index 2017 | Belgium
However, apart from what statistics might indicate, an ambitious climate plan must also be grounded within the UNFCCC principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities:

“… the global nature of climate change calls for the widest possible cooperation by all countries and their participation in an effective and appropriate international response, in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities and their social and economic conditions …”11

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

I borrow the argument for differentiated responsibilities from the Laudato Si’ which is very incisive in articulating our responsibilities in the context of “care for our common home” — our common good.

The foreign debt of poor countries has become a way of controlling them, yet this is not the case where ecological debt is concerned. In different ways, developing countries, where the most important reserves of the biosphere are found, continue to fuel the development of richer countries at the cost of their own present and future. The land of the southern poor is rich and mostly unpolluted, yet access to ownership of goods and resources for meeting vital needs is inhibited by a system of commercial relations and ownership which is structurally perverse. … The poorest areas and countries are less capable of adopting new models for reducing environmental impact because they lack the wherewithal to develop the necessary processes and to cover their costs. We must continue to be aware that, regarding climate change, there are differentiated responsibilities.

Laudato Si’, 139

Just as climate marches and activism like this evening’s Claim the Climate11 will continue to engage concerned citizens of our common home in the near future, they need to be supported by research data that helps us make translatable changes in our daily life practices. Such climate activism in claiming the climate is also key in effecting government policies that can have far-reaching consequences on our ecology. While this evening’s climate march will remain a work in progress, it is also a reminder that our struggle with climate change is also about leading an active life — physically, mentally and spiritually — together. It is also a struggle that we could well celebrate together. And today’s cycling ride was just a case in point.
Time to pause and reflect. Claim the Climate.
Time to pause and reflect. Claim the Climate.
  PS: In case you are not yet convinced about climate change — or are just curious about it — these seven charts on climate change might be a good starting point.12    

  1. The Paris Agreement 2015 sought to limit the increase of global temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and to eventually limit it to even below 1.5 degrees Celsius. It seeks to realise this goal by building a collaborative framework between countries where financial resources and technological knowhow is shared. This is key to more vulnerable and underdeveloped countries. Read the full text: United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, “Adoption of the Paris Agreement”, United Nations, 12 December 2015, (accessed 2 December 2018) | Also read: Rogelj, Joeri, Michel den Elzen, Niklas Höhne, Taryn Fransen, Hanna Fekete, Harald Winkler, Roberto Schaeffer, Fu Sha, Keywan Riahi, and Malte Meinshausen. 2016. “Paris Agreement Climate Proposals Need a Boost to Keep Warming Well below 2 °C.” Nature 534 (June): 631.
  2. Cook, John, Naomi Oreskes, Peter T Doran, William R L Anderegg, Bart Verheggen, Ed W Maibach, J Stuart Carlton, et al. “Consensus on Consensus: A Synthesis of Consensus Estimates on Human-Caused Global Warming.” Environmental Research Letters 11, no. 4 (April 1, 2016): 048002. 
  3. Climate Express, “Wat willen we” (accessed 2 December 2018) 
  4. OECD (2018), National Accounts of OECD Countries, Volume 2018 Issue 2: Detailed Tables, OECD Publishing, Paris. (accessed 2 December 2018). Belgium’s GDP for 2017 was 439,052 million euro (cf. pp. 32-40) and it currently accounts for among the top 25 countries in the world by GDP. 
  5. Green Climate Fund, “Resource Mobilization”, (accessed 2 December 2018). 
  6. Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, Vatican City: Vatican Press, 2015 (accessed 2 December 2018). 
  7. Laudato Si’, 54 
  8. Laudato Si’, 159 
  9. OECD, “Belgium”, OECD Better Life Index, (accessed 2 December 2018). 
  10. Daniel Schraad-Tischler, Christof Schiller, Sascha Matthias Heller, Nina Siemer, “Social Justice in the EU – Index Report 2017”, Social Inclusion Monitor Europe, Gütersloh: Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2017, (accessed 2 December 2018). Belgium ranks 13th among the EU countries with  a score of 6.18, a notch  higher than the EU average of 5.85 points. Interestingly, it ranks among the top ten EU countries in two of the six social justice parameters — health (6th) and social cohesion and non-discrimination (10th). 
  11. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, United Nations, 9 May 1992, (accessed 2 December 2018). 
  12. Claim the Climate, (accessed 2 December 2018) has now been regarded the largest mobilisation ever for climate, in Belgium. 
  13. Nassos Stylianou, Clara Guibourg, Daniel Dunford and Lucy Rodgers, “Climate change: Where we are in seven charts and what you can do to help”, BBC (accessed 2 December 2018) 

Rinald D'Souza

Rinald D'Souza is a historian of religion and society in modern South Asia. He specialises on twentieth-century Christianity and the history of the Jesuits in India. He is presently pursuing a PhD in history at the Department of History at KU Leuven, Belgium. His current research explores the self-fashioning of Adivasi Jesuits through the missionary periodical press. Read more.

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