Leiden Law Blog

The reality of climate change

The reality of climate change Photo: Individuo

After the Dutch elections, the politicians involved suddenly realised that during the campaign there had never been a major debate about climate change – although it was central in some of the party programmes. Apparently the majority of them assumed that voters could only be drawn to vote by short-term issues like the economy, security, healthcare, the migrant crisis, and the threat of terrorism. Climate change was considered a long-term issue, unlikely to draw any voters. I don’t know whether they have realised that by defining the issue as one that is primarily about caring for our future generations, for our children and our children’s children, they have automatically turned it into a long-term issue.

Not a long-term issue

I think it’s quite amazing, but sad at the same time, that people can still believe that climate change is a long-term issue. As can be witnessed by the increasing number of hurricanes, the worldwide changing patterns of rainfall and severe drought (like what is happening in Africa at this very moment, creating large numbers of refugees), it is threatening our lives here and now. Recently scientists announced that the melting of the icecaps in Greenland is irreversible.

Not a mechanical devise

Like our own body, the nature that surrounds us is not a mechanical device with a simple on/off button. It is alive, always reacting very slowly to human activities, whether this be in a positive or negative way. Any action taken now will probably only take effect in a few decades. In a Dutch context this means: if we wait until the dykes cannot hold back the water anymore and the flooding has started, it really is much too late to start doing anything at all. We should not let ourselves be lead astray any longer by the army of rational sceptics, who keep on arguing that we still need more scientific research and evidence. I suspect that they just don’t want to give up the luxury of their own privileged lifestyles.

Putting the environment first

It can be argued that climate change, or the deterioration of the natural environment, is not even an issue. It is a reality that is beyond issues. A reality that unfortunately is consciously denied by many people, including US President Trump. Perhaps this is because somehow they realise what becoming ecologically minded really entails. It means that we have to reverse the relationship between ourselves and the natural environment: putting the environment first and us, together with our often-cherished national identity, second. And this is inconceivable for people who are under the spell of the size and uniqueness of the human brain and the rational thought it produces.

Outdoor and indoor life

Additionally, the fact that much of our modern life (perhaps with the exception of our holidays and weekends) is spent indoors – in homes, in offices, in cars, in shops, in planes –, does not help much either. It has helped to create the belief that there actually exists a kind of life without seasons or other cycles – like the 24 hour economy – and that essentially we are different from the rest of nature. But of course outdoor life has always penetrated our indoor artificial world in many ways: through air, water, food, light and gravity. Even natural cycles are never wholly absent indoors. It is easy to see which is the most powerful of the two. In a similar sense, each city feeds on its surrounding countryside.

A changing attitude

Although it would be great if the newly-formed Dutch government manages to put climate change high on the agenda (which is still doubtful) and the Paris Agreement remains important, we should not wait for politicians with their unavoidable top-down approach. Even when we start recognising ecocide internationally as a major crime and give rights to Mother Earth – as I have pleaded for in previous blogs – I’m afraid this might still leave our basic attitude towards nature largely unaffected. Genuinely dealing with climate change can only be realised when individual people start changing their attitude profoundly, in a grass roots, bottom-up way. As pointed out above, this means putting the environment first and ourselves second. I am sure Lady Justice would not object to this harmless, gentle version of ‘taking the law into our own hands’!

Acceptance and respect

It is becoming clear that in our efforts to understand the natural world and our place in it, we have missed something essential: that we are always fully embedded in it and can never step outside, to study, control or improve it. In fact, all we need to do is humbly accept our place in nature, respect its overarching and overwhelming presence and try to learn from this experience. It offers us wise lessons – for free.

Note: Just as I finished writing this blog, Dutch comedian Arjen Lubach also paid extensive attention to climate change in his weekly news show.

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