Photos and videos of terrifying, devastating floods in Germany have gone viral over the past week. EU officials are saying that the climate crisis has “arrived”. Climate justice activists point out that it’s been a reality for the Global South for years. Now that it’s unfurling in the Global North, what’s next? What do we do?
The climate crisis is unfurling in the Global North
Pictures and videos of anxiety-inducing floods have taken over the Internet over the past week. At the time of writing, floods across western Germany and Belgium have apparently killed at least 160 people. Many more are missing, and we’re expecting the numbers to rise. But it’s not just death and missing people. Because of the floods, thousands are now homeless. Economic damage from lost homes, businesses and the cost of repair is chalking up to the billions. These floods will likely stay in the collective memories of these communities for years to come.
For those of us watching the news, this might feel like déjà vu. Just a few weeks ago, we saw a record-breaking heatwave killing hundreds across Canada and the US. The searing temperatures haven’t ceased yet: the fourth heatwave in five weeks just hit over the weekend. Active wildfires have been blazing through twelve US states, stoked by the high temperatures and prolonged drought. “We’re talking about a new kind of fire season,” says UCLA public health professor David Eisenman, “with repeated and persistent fires producing weeks and months of smoke.”
For the Global North, the climate crisis is well and truly here.
The only rational course of action at this point is to immediately begin the work of shutting down the fossil fuel industry, rationing FF with a decreasing cap, and putting all available resources into GHG-emissions-free energy, food, and infrastructure system transitions.
— Peter Kalmus (@ClimateHuman) July 16, 2021
Scientists are saying that their predictions have been wrong, too conservative
A recent BBC headline worryingly reads: “Climate change: Science failed to predict flood and heat intensity”. Apparently, top climate scientists have admitted that they’ve failed to predict the intensity of both the German floods and the North American heat dome. They were correct about the fact that climate change would bring with it severe bursts of rain and more intense heatwaves. But their computers haven’t been able to keep up enough to accurately project the severity of what we’re seeing today.
And on top of the computers just not being advanced enough, there’s also the issue of scientific reports being too conservative. The IPCC’s reports, for example, are conservative because it doesn’t take into account sufficiently tipping points, feedback loops and outlier predictions. If it did, things would look much more doomsday. The reports, of course, still matter in terms of policymaking, climate science communications, and other world-turning stuff. But they’re not “fit for dealing with a rapidly evolving climate and political landscape”.
Which is a fancy way of saying not enough people know we’re too careful with our words. And not enough people know that the possibility of climate catastrophe is probably much higher than we would think.
Climate Change has not "arrived." It has been here for decades & now the Global North is also being impacted.
Fossil fuel industries, the richest 1%, Global North leaders who keep talking & meeting but refuse to cut the needed emissions — this is on you.https://t.co/C6OGRCRAiY
— Fridays For Future MAPA (@FFFMAPA) July 16, 2021
The climate crisis is a reality for the Global South, and has been
One NASA climate scientist, Peter Kalmus, notes, these “[m]assive climate catastrophes in the Global North are shaking people out of soft denial, where it was, unfortunately, easy to feel “safe” when such disaster seemed confined to the Global South or was predicted for even just a few years in the future.”
As he is making clear, we’ve come to a moment in our shared contemporary history, where the Global North is no longer able to hide from the climate crisis anymore. (Let’s be clear, though: by “no longer able to hide”, we mean it’s undoubtedly affecting them now. The Global North is still rich enough—or at least significantly richer than the Global South—to put up walls to hide, and protect themselves.) But as countries of the Global North begin to reckon with this, we’re also beginning to see the extent of the injustice. In the way that these countries have responded.
“Climate change has arrived in Germany,” Germany’s environment minister Svenja Schulze tweeted. “The events show with what force the consequences of climate change can affect us all, and how important it is for us to adjust to extreme weather events in the future.”
The leaders of the Global North seem to have forgotten a fact: that the climate crisis has been here for decades, just not in where it matters, it seems.
Floods and heatwaves affect the Global South too, but unlike the Global North, they don’t have the luxury of coping
To be clear: this isn’t meant to take away from the devastation in the Global North. The floods in Germany, and the heatwaves in Canada and the US, have both led to tragic impacts. We have to also recognise that this has been a reality for countries in the Global South for far longer. And that these countries will continue to bear the brunt of most of it.
Millions in Southeast Asia face flood risks
Earlier in the month, a study found that the “burden of current coastal flood risk and future sea-level rise falls disproportionately on tropical regions, especially in Asia”. In countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, which are vulnerable to sea-level rise and with land prone to sinking, more of the population will face annual extreme sea-level events that will progressively get worse. The researchers said that they expected the numbers to be high, but “to find two-thirds of the lands and people most at risk in developing tropical countries was more than we expected”.
The impacts will be similar. Large areas of land may become uninhabitable and unproductive. These might cascade onto food systems, economic systems, etc. The difference between floods in Germany and floods in countries within Asia, however, is that there are much more vulnerable communities in the latter region. “Millions of vulnerable people live in the flooding areas,” said Tata Mustasya, Greenpeace Southeast Asia’s regional climate and energy campaign strategist. “They will be displaced and lose their livelihoods.”
And many in the Global South face rapid warming
Last month, a study published in Nature found that climate change has caused a third of heat deaths. 37% of deaths between 1991 and 2018 related to heat exposure were linked to global warming caused by humans. But most importantly, they found that the most affected areas, aside from southern Europe, are South America and southern Asia, both of which have already vulnerable communities. (The study mentioned that they didn’t have enough empirical data to include large parts of Africa and South Asia.)
The researchers emphasised that this meant that the health effects of rapid warming “are already being felt even at these relatively early stages of potential catastrophic changes in climate”. The main message? That “you don’t have to wait until 2050 to see increases in heat-related deaths.” The climate crisis isn’t in the future. It’s here, and it’s been here. It’s just been affected in places where the mainstream media fails to make enough noise.
The climate crisis is always going to disproportionately affect the most vulnerable, but the Global North has a part to play in that too
In October last year, the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) published a report that looks at the landscape in the 21st century and the human cost of disaster. The report found that Asia suffered the most disaster events. In part because of the landscapes that themselves have a high risk of natural hazards. And also because of the high population densities in these disaster-prone areas. (Let’s not be eco-fascist.)
But the report detailed that low-income countries had the highest average number of deaths per disaster event. And three times as many losses compared to GDP. There are many reasons for this. Poorer risk governance, infrastructure, surveillance systems, etc. However, in saying all this, we’re ignoring a crucial fact: that the Global North has a part to play in keeping these low-income countries low-income. That because of the plundering by the Global North, the extractivism in the Global South, over centuries… the Global North and Global South economic divide continues to widen.
And if you think that’s in the past? It’s not. Today, richer countries continue to fail poorer countries, despite their historic debt to these poorer countries. One example of this is in the area of climate finance. Which low-income countries should receive to cope with climate impacts. And yet, climate finance seems to be driving them further into debt.
According to an Oxfam report last year, 80% of all reported public climate finance was in the form of loans, not grants. And half were non-concessional (as in, offered on ungenerous terms). When subtracting interests, repayments and other costs, the amount going to poor nations is about $19 to $22.5 billion, rather than the reported $60 billion.
And we haven’t even talked about how the climate crisis is one for which richer countries are more responsible…
So what now?
With the climate crisis rapidly approaching us, the solutions we have available fall into two camps. Broadly speaking, there are “adaptation” strategies, and then “mitigation” strategies. It’s crucial to make a distinction between the two types, especially when we’re thinking about the Global North-Global South divide.
Adaptation versus mitigation
We can understand the difference by using a common metaphor of a sinking ship. As Climate Reality Project explains: “If you want to stay afloat, you’ve got to act. The first thing you could do is grab a bucket and pour water out as it gushes through the hull. This response is adaptation — addressing the effect (the water in the boat), but not the cause of the problem (the hole).” So the alternative is mitigation: “sealing the leak to half more water coming in”.
In climate terms: adaptation is “doing what we can to live with and minimize the destruction and suffering that comes from climate change”. It’s building homes and infrastructure to manage storms, floods, heat, etc. It’s figuring out how we can adapt to slashed farm yields, how we can transform where we can grow what. Mitigation, on the other hand, concerns itself with the sources and sinks of greenhouse gases. It can look like moving away from fossil fuels, towards renewable energies, preserving forests, existing ecosystems, etc.
In the context of the Global North-Global South…
The Climate Reality Project points out that policymakers will necessarily prefer adaptation: “a local, private good with often clear and immediate benefits.” Mitigation is “a global, public good with far-away benefits”. Operating from a scarcity mindset (for some countries, perceived scarcity, others more real, material scarcity), policymakers want the option that’s good on paper, popular with communities. Rather than the one that benefits all.
This is a choice that comes with far greater consequences when we compare richer countries to poorer ones. As climate expert Bert Gordijn explains in his essay “Ethics of Mitigation, Adaptation and Geoengineering”, wealthy countries have the luxury of choice. They can either “bear the cost of reducing their emissions to the benefit of the world, or they can just choose to adapt, ensuring their short-term security while leaving everyone else behind. So far, they’ve largely chosen to avoid mitigation.”
“As a result, many people, especially in the poorest countries in the world, have experienced and will increasingly encounter adverse climate change effects on health, both in terms of morbidity and mortality.” Gordijn says that we must adapt, but we must also mitigate as quickly as possible. The “we” here, of course, refers more to the richer countries, the countries in the Global North. The “we” is not a blanket “we”. It’s leaders of the Global North, of corporations and governments, and to a lesser extent the people of the Global North.
The Global North needs to act, but for the right reasons
As climate justice activist from the Philippines, Mitzi Jonelle Tan, writes: “Will Global North leaders act on climate just because their countries are already impacted or the threats and risks of their future are suddenly more concrete and tangible? What kind of action will we see with this?”
“Will it be climate action that saves those in the Global North but leaves behind the countries who have been impacted for so long; countries who have had decades of loss and damage and will only see more as business as usual continues? Will the Global North leaders use this as an excuse to not pay their climate debt through climate finance for loss and damages and adaptation?”
Tan clarifies that it’s not that Global North leaders shouldn’t invest in adaptation measures for their own countries. We should protect everyone, including those in richer countries. But the key here is that we need to see the Global North cutting emissions drastically. And the Global North is going to have to invest in adaptation measures for poorer countries too. “Global North leaders have to act because they caused this. Full stop. To say otherwise is to say our lives in the most affected areas aren’t as important.”
In other words, Tan is saying that we need adaptation for all, led by the Global North leaders. And mitigation from the Global North, most especially. Which includes the fossil fuel industry, and the richest 1%.
Global North leaders are failing us time and time again
What of these major climate summits? The major conferences that happen every year? What of the hope that we, people everywhere, citizens everywhere, invested in them? If you’ve read the news lately, you’ll see that activists have been camping outside the elite spaces where these events are held. They’ve been protesting these events because every time they’ve happened over the past few years? They’ve been disappointing—too much fanfare for too little result.
Just last week, over 100 developing country governments joined to demand clear action from the rich world before COP26—the vital UN climate talks in Glasgow come November. They noted that the recent G7 leaders’ summit, and meetings of the G20 group of major economies, have both seen slow progress. Even though these richer countries have declared long-term targets to reach net-zero, there haven’t been clear plans.
Sonam P Wangdi of Bhutan, the chair of the least developed countries group at COP26, had this to say: “We vulnerable countries are not asking for much – just that richer countries, who have caused this problem, take responsibility by cutting their emissions and keeping their promise to help those their emissions have harmed.”
One of the key points for the COP26 talks is the fact that the rich world continues to fail to meet promises. In 2009, they promised that they would provide $100 billion a year in climate finance to flow to poor countries by 2020. And yet, as noted above: climate finance remains lacking and deeply entrenched in conditions set by the Global North. As Tanguy Gahouma-Bekale of Gabon, the chair of the Africa group of negotiators, said: “Developed countries are currently not pulling their weight”.
Global North leaders are merely greenwashing
It’s worth noting that despite the rhetoric that richer nations are putting out, and certainly despite the fact that they have much more resources, they seem to be clearly greenwashing. In June, new analyses revealed that the G7 nations have pumped billions of dollars more into fossil fuels than they have into clean energy since the pandemic. Despite, again, their promises of a “green” recovery. The numbers are in the hundreds of billions.
The countries attending the G7 summit committed $189 billion to support oil, coal and gas between January 2020 and March 2021. In comparison, they’ve spent $147 billion on clean energy. Further, analyses found that in most cases money going towards fossil fuel industries came with no strings attached. (This means they aren’t really very concerned about moving away from polluting in the long term.) That amounted to about 80% of the $115 billion collectively given out.
The summit itself? It was a “colossal failure” for all the world to see. “Faced with the biggest health emergency in a century and a climate catastrophe that is destroying our planet,” said Max Lawson, Oxfam’s head of inequality policy, leaders of the richest nations “have completely failed to meet the challenges of our times. Never in the history of the G7 has there been a bigger gap between their actions and the needs of the world.”
John Sauven, Greenpeace UK’s executive director, said that the summit felt like a broken record of the same old climate promises. “There’s a new commitment to ending overseas investment in coal, which is their piece de resistance. But without agreeing to end all new fossil fuel projects— something that must be delivered this year if we are to limit dangerous rises in global temperature—this plan falls very short.”
The Global North leadership is nowhere near where it should be
As Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International, shared: “it is the most vulnerable who are fairing the worst due to G7 leaders sleeping on the job. We need authentic leadership and that means treating the pandemic and the climate crisis for what they are: an interconnected inequality emergency.”
As far as acknowledging this goes, the Global North leadership has failed. The Asian Peoples’ Movement on Debt and Development released a statement regarding the G20 meeting in early July, strongly denouncing it, and saying that the communique is “underwhelming in regard to climate, debt, and tax and fails to offer any indication that the demands of peoples of the Global South are heard.”
The statement echoes the critiques above: the communique fails to do what’s most needed right now—ending fossil fuel energy. Instead, it repeats (undelivered) promises and weak targets. “To tackle the climate crisis,” the statement reads, “we need real zero targets, not net zero. For the developed country members of the G20, it is not enough to reach real zero domestically. Their share in historical and continuing emissions is so huge that meeting their fair share includes enabling mitigation actions beyond their borders through climate finance.”
It further goes onto highlight that there’s no clear call or commitment to scale up climate finance. Not to mention, they continue to fail to recognise that this is an interconnected inequality emergency. The statement elaborates on various debt and tax justice issues, that the G20 have yet to address. Issues that deserve attention, if we’re to honour the fact that this is about inequality as much as it is about the climate.
What can you do?
These issues are just as big as their dimensions are complex. If you’re feeling the throes of eco-anxiety, we—climate activists, etc.—are right here with you.
As Mitzi Jonelle Tan shared: “Now isn’t the time to separate ourselves and alienate ourselves from each other more, now is the time to come together and unite.” Fellow activist Tori Tsui tweeted too: “Just to reiterate, you don’t need to be any kind of person to care about the climate crisis. Too often I’ve been asked ‘so what got you into environmentalism?’. What I should be asking is why aren’t you?”
To this, Dr. Katherine Wilkinson, co-founder of The All We Can Save Project, shared: “There is no simple formula, no fact sheet or checklist, for figuring out our roles in the vital work to forge a just, livable future. But I have found a series of reflections can help us arrive at some clarity and uncover ways to be of use.” Dr. Wilkinson’s five steps include: feeling your feelings, scouting your superpowers, surveying solutions, considering your context, and finally, cultivating a climate squad.
The last of those five steps is something activists everywhere are encouraging now. Organising, wherever you are, is one of the best things you can do. And it doesn’t always look like protesting—contrary to popular belief, that’s not all there is to organising. It’s also about other direct actions, like mutual aid, community care projects, or even food sovereignty gardens. Organising doesn’t look the same everywhere, but what is the same? Is that we need all hands on deck.
Stop thinking, start doing
As Emily Atkin notes in her newsletter “HEATED”: “This is pretty much the biggest moment in climate politics in over a dozen years”, said Jamal Raad, the executive director of Evergreen Action, a progressive climate group focused on federal legislation.
“Climate activism also has an unfortunate history of regressive finger-wagging, blaming relatively powerless individuals for not making “better” environmental choices,” Atkin writes. “The climate activism that is needed today is not that type of activism—especially since, according to the IEA, individual “behaviour” changes will only account for around 4 per cent of cumulative emissions reductions in the path to net-zero. What’s needed today is sustained outrage at the powerful, by those with the time and resources to express it.”
And that outrage? It looks like campaigns against powerful corporations. Pushing for legislation in your country. Making noise about advertising agencies, marketing firms, and social media platforms for aiding fossil fuel propaganda. Supporting Indigenous groups on the frontlines. And if not straight-up activism? Atkin suggests education or communications projects. Even art collectives.
“The opportunities to get involved in the climate fight are endless, and that can be overwhelming. But the beauty of people power is that you don’t have to do everything.” We’re in this together—in fact, it’s the only way we’ll get there. The only way we’ll get to a world where the Global North is accountable to the Global South. Where climate adaptation will be fair and just and for all, and where mitigation will happen faster. Where we avoid the worst-case scenario.
The only way is if you come on board too.
FEATURED IMAGE: via Luisa Neubauer on Twitter | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A photo that’s gone viral of a town in Germany being devastated by floods; entire fields, homes, and other infrastructure are sinking into the Earth; the photo seems to have captured the devastation mid-way: in half of the picture, some trees and other homes remain intact; the visual is shocking
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