The beginning of the end. Can individualism solve the climate crisis?

The greenhouse effect gained international recognition at the start of the 19th century. Leading environmental scientists began to recognise the effects of man-made pollution on the global environment around the same time. In the early 1980s, Eugene Stoermer coined the term Anthropocene, which describes the epoch characterised by a significant impact that humanity has on the natural world. Finally, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) is established, becoming an expert body on global warming, and in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol, which sets the emissions reduction targets, was adopted.


How come, that with over 30 years of global cooperation, we have not achieved anything? Emissions are higher than ever before, even though the goal of the Kyoto Protocol was to lower the emissions already existing back in 1997. Assuming that countries’ efforts led by the world’s best scientists are somehow failing, what else is there to do? Why have their actions not succeeded in the intended results? And how catastrophic will it get?


Water scarcity

Humankind is not able to survive without water. Yet we are exhausting supplies quicker than they can replenish. It is estimated that by 2030, the freshwater supply will be sufficient to satisfy 60% of the world’s demand. There’s a finite water quantity, and for this reason, water scarcity is becoming a more relevant matter than ever before. Especially problematic, and often leading to disputes, are scenarios where two or more countries depend on water from the same source. Such conflicts arise in Latin America, where businesses make deals with the government to create new jobs in exchange for unlimited water supply. As the water scarcity becomes even more severe due to climate change, less rain and snow melting into the rivers from glaciers, people have no choice but to protest, as has happened in Bolivia, Peru, and numerous other countries.


Investors benefiting from the global freshwater crisis is hard to fathom. Privatising water is a good strategy for the rich to grow their wealth, but the poor cannot keep up with the rising water prices. Cadiz Inc in the USA is the company that plans to pump up water from underneath the Mojave Desert and sell it to California for a profit. Many other businesses are planning to do the same as severe droughts are becoming a bigger issue around the world. Are private companies so focused on their profits that they will take one of the people’s most basic needs and then try to re-sell it? Private investors justify this by arguing that the privatisation does not prevent individuals from buying water, in this way contradicting the belief that water is a human right. Conflicts and wars over scarce resources are only going to happen more often with the progressing climate emergency. People will either be able to afford to buy water, or they will have to fight over it. And soon, it might not just be the issue of the Global South - we all will be affected.


Eco-warriors and ‘little steps’

Greta Thunberg protested outside the Swedish Parliament for the first time in August 2018. A then 15-year-old was astonished by the inaction of her country’s government, which is known for its apparent commitment to sustainable development. Greta straightforwardly noted that Sweden is in the top 10 global polluters and pointed out the hypocrisy of the country’s outsourcing of emissions through various hazy offsetting projects and outsourcing production. During the COP24 in Katowice, she openly criticised global leaders and expressed her frustration with the fact that scientists and their findings are being ignored.


Greta is a role model for doing things ‘the right way,’ through being vegan and avoiding flying, amongst many other things. Often her activism is being ignored to focus more on changing an individual’s behaviour through green consumption. Being an informed consumer is one of the main points in the book called ‘How To Save The World? What Good Can You Do For Earth’ written by Polish influencer Areta Szpura, previously the creative director of a fast-fashion brand. The main point of the publication lists the ‘little steps’ that everyone can take in order to live a more sustainable existence. Those actions should not be discouraged, although it is crucial to recognise their implications, as promoting green consumerism is, nonetheless, encouraging further consumption. Is it possible to recognise one’s privilege and the historic struggles of the Global South through ‘little steps’? Does it provide the reader with the knowledge of how to negotiate efficient solutions between the private companies and water-deprived communities?


New environmental governance

Strangely, the new neoliberal approach to environmental governance does not address that issue either. The Paris Agreement adopted in 2015 encourages voluntary targets set by the member countries themselves, advocates for market-led mechanisms and promotes individualisation of responsibility, thereby ignoring past emissions and preaching the ‘we are all equally responsible’ dialectic.


But nations are not equally guilty. Often those most affected by the climate crisis, have not and do not contribute to its cause. Without recognising this, how are we to protect the most vulnerable? How are we to avoid more resource wars and conflicts in the future, which are likely to start happening more often due to increased global warming? And how are developing nations of the so-called Global South supposed to grow their economies in a ‘green’ way without a financial support system in place? So far, the voices of those nations have been marginalised, and as the Paris Agreement is non-binding, and countries can withdraw from it at any given time, nothing is likely to change.


How will the revolution come?

According to Climate Action Tracker, the voluntary targets adapted by countries in 2015 add up to causing global warming of 2.7*C up to 3.5*C in the worst scenario. Thanks to the EU’s Emission Trading System, the European Community managed to cut 4.8% CO2 emissions between 2008 and 2016. Market-led solutions have some advantages. But as illustrated earlier, not recognising climate justice and people’s humanitarian right to water will only lead to further conflicts. Should we use the hope we have and transfer it to change in behaviour? Or is this exactly what the broken system wants us to do? Likewise, we cannot all afford sailing across the Atlantic, nor do we have time for such a journey. Individual behaviour change should not be discouraged, but it is crucial to recognise that it will not make much of a difference on its own.


Is activism the right answer? It is crucial to remember that true political activism is certainly not only about voting in national elections once every few years but also about protesting, coming up with new initiatives and holding your representatives accountable. In the UK the nation-wide campaign of people writing to their MPs has shown the power of people. Yet how will the change happen in Poland, a country where coal is equated with gold and mining construction specialists are employed to share their supposedly sufficient expertise and unbiased knowledge about the changing climate? Will we be able to pressure Polish politicians or persuade our fellow countrymen to elect a ruling party with sustainable development on its agenda? With so many other critical issues on a national and global agenda, it is unlikely that the catastrophe will be mitigated. The irrationality of human behaviour simply discourages us from paying sufficient attention to the issue of which consequences we are not yet personally experiencing.