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Globalization researcher Brand: The imperial way of life destroys our climate

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We are in a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, environmental degradation and especially climate change are hotly debated in public. Large parts of the population are aware that something has to be done in terms of climate policy due to the rapid and strong reduction in greenhouse gases. On the other hand, despite many good ideas and initiatives, climate policies have so far been completely inadequate. The political goal of decarbonising the world economy by the end of the century and a correspondingly drastic reduction by 2050 can only be achieved with great effort. Austria is also clearly lagging behind, particularly in the transport sector.

A major reason for political failure is that politics, business and society do not want to change what I call the "imperial way of life". We in materially rich countries make use of the cheap resources and labor of the rest of the world as a matter of course and without malicious intent. The companies make this possible - and then sell it to us with their powerful marketing machinery as one-off special offers. Politics safeguards it, for example, through growth orientation, free trade policies and the non-recognition of high environmental and social standards in other countries. Most of us still think: "Stinginess is great!"

Climate policy mockery

There are big differences in the way of life, which are mainly expressed in terms of income. Those who have more income and assets can also afford more or larger goods and services: a second car, for example, which - like the first - is manufactured in other countries under mostly poor social and ecological conditions. Or you use the plane more often to travel to Milan for a short vacation or to go shopping over the weekend. There is a lot of talk about sustainability and climate policy and, in some cases, the purchase of organic products is also traded. But in principle the unsustainable way of life should not be questioned, according to the motto: "Wash my fur, but don't get me wet." We don't take ambitious climate policy that seriously.

Politics goes along with it. When it comes down to it, approval is given that Vienna Airport can be expanded to include a third runway. As if almost everything is not already geared towards it, economic growth and competitiveness must be laid down as central goals in the constitution. In terms of climate policy, a mockery - and is criticized accordingly by social movements. This is justified with jobs of whatever quality and meaningfulness and, in some cases, with fantasy figures. Who has something against good-sounding job prospects? This blocks the necessary discussions about a socio-ecological restructuring of our society.

Wait until the "tipping point"

This mixed situation also translates into international climate policy. It is initially run by governments, with science playing a major role. Since climate change is not or only to a very limited extent experienced in our latitudes, we need the scientific warning system before so-called tipping points with unmistakable consequences - "tipping points" - such as the interruption of the warm Gulf Stream to Europe are reached. There are also many opponents of a more effective climate policy. There are the enormously powerful oil, coal and gas companies that managed at the last minute to negotiate out of the Paris climate agreement of December 2015 that fossil fuels are cited as the cause of climate change. To top it off, US President Donald Trump is heading a movement that simply denies climate change. That has fatal consequences.

Even the European Union, which at least on paper stands for an effective climate policy, does not want to question the imperial way of life of the global north and has strong allies in this. The governments of the emerging countries have enormous and tangible environmental problems: China and its polluted cities are a dramatic example. But over the past two decades, middle classes have formed there who also want to consume cars, electrical appliances and meat. You have thus contributed to an expansion of the imperial way of life. And they, too, initially have little interest in an effective climate policy.

The social fringes as a source of inspiration

We know from a lot of research and based on historical experience that what is supposed to be taken for granted is more likely to be questioned from the margins of society. It is often social movements, critical publicists and scientists who point out problems. In return, they are initially often laughed at or denounced as unscientific. In Austria, criticism of the Zwentendorf nuclear power plant and the Hainburg power plant on the Danube was initially rejected in precisely this form. But in the course of time and due to political changes, an understanding has taken place.

The current situation is similar with the discussion about the expansion of Vienna Airport in the form of a third runway. The plausible decision of the Federal Administrative Court in February 2017 to stop the expansion of the airport so that the climate targets can be met has since been wiped out. There seems to be a broad front for the airport to supposedly secure growth and competitiveness. But the third runway is about more, namely whether the transport system should finally be designed to be climate-friendly or not.

This makes the argument all the more important that we need a significant expansion of the European transport system in order to get around easily by train. It should become a social asset not to be able to fly cheaply anytime and anywhere. To this end, taxation on air traffic should be increased significantly. Based on the dispute about the airport expansion in Vienna, we will see a significant reduction in air traffic across Europe in 2030. "With the night train from Vienna to Barcelona" - that is a climate-friendly perspective.

Climate factor car

For reasons of climate policy, automobility must urgently be reduced. The currently discussed switch to electric cars is a false promise made by business and politics, as enormous resources are used in production for these cars too and certain raw materials for electric drives are not available in sufficient quantities. Rather, it is about appropriate policies so that public transport can be expanded and road traffic reduced. Through public discussions and other forms of mobility such as public transport, cycling or walking, the opinion of the population arises that an SUV does not work at all and is even contemptible and that in the medium term the car is shared and rarely used.

The public sector can also use socio-ecological symbolic politics to contribute to questioning an environmentally destructive and climate-damaging way of life. In the 1970s, in the light of rapidly increasing oil prices and clear uncertainty about what this means, a powerful tool to raise public awareness was introduced: car-free Sundays. National, state and local governments should do that again today. In contrast to the 1970s, they would have to be pushed today by public debates, scientifically based arguments, environmental associations and social movements to introduce car-free Sundays. Such an initiative would be a small but exciting answer to the human question "How do we save our climate?"

Ulrich Brand is a political scientist and since September 2007 professor for international politics at the University of Vienna and deputy head of the Institute for Political Science. His main research interests include capitalist globalization issues and international resource and environmental policy.

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