In a September 13 interview with Der Tagesspiegel about Europe’s current refugee crisis, German Federal Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière attributed the dramatic developments of past weeks to a lack of commitment in the fight against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and the self-styled Islamic State. Minister de Maizière proclaimed that Europe should no longer stand on the sidelines while thousands of civilians are murdered. He is acknowledging the problem; so far, so good.
But here is the problem: De Maizière is stating the obvious. The Syrian Civil War has been raging on since early 2011, and thanks to Twitter and Facebook, the world was well aware, though nobody cared. In late 2013, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon proclaimed that the Syrian Civil War’s death toll had risen above 100,000; though, again, nobody cared. And over the past year, the World Food Programme (WFP) had to cut provisions to Syrian refugees several times due to a lack of funding from donor countries; though, again, nobody cared.
The European Union and Germany have just now started to care about the plights of refugees from Syria and the broader Middle East because, unlike during the past four years, the crisis is no longer an abstract drama playing out in some foreign country of no strategic significance. Only now, with refugees fleeing to Europe every day, has the problem become a concrete reality which is literally banging on our door. Only now do politicians seem to take refugees seriously. Only now has the European Union announced that it will increase funding to the WFP and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). Maybe that will help stop the bleeding for a while.
But there is an underlying characteristic here which has become too common in modern politics: Nobody cares about problems until they turn into catastrophes which can no longer be ignored, catastrophes which force politicians to make split-second decisions without being able to carefully think them through. This was the case when German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in an act of kindness, first allowed refugees stranded in Hungary to travel to Germany without registration, but soon afterwards turned around 180 degrees and reintroduced border controls.
While the refugee crisis is a terrible drama and deserves immediate attention in its own right, I can’t help but compare it to an even more dangerous issue looming over our heads: climate change. Since its establishment by the United Nations in 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has assessed the scientific research on a changing climate and its impacts on our modern societies. In 2014, the IPCC published its fifth assessment report which evaluated and summarized the arguments of 9,200 peer-reviewed studies. Its main findings were that “warming of the climate is unequivocal” and that “human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history.”
Despite the starkest warning ever issued by the IPCC, policy makers keep finding excuses for why they should not act. Some say the science is not clear, though the IPCC’s findings contradict that statement, and independent studies have shown that more than 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is happening and that humans are its cause. Others say that the costs for mitigation are too high and that we should focus on economic growth instead. But as many as 84 percent of economists agree that anthropogenic global warming poses significant risks to the global economy, and that acting through multilateral agreements and carbon pricing will benefit the economy. And while others argue that they have already made pledges to protect the environment and that the world is on the right track, analysis of these promises and targets show that the global goal of limiting global warming to 2°C (3.6°F) will be missed by a long shot.
The warning signs are as clear as they get. It is now up to the leaders of the world to decide whether they want to take on the challenge of climate change. Their first true test will come in Paris this December at the COP-21 conference on sustainability, but even a strong, legally binding multilateral agreement can only be the beginning. Protecting the environment is also up to us, the citizens. We need to make climate change a key policy issue, one that any person running for head of government has to address.
The refugee crisis in Europe shows that politics is becoming increasingly reactive despite early, highly visible warning signs. Interpreting this observation can go in two directions: The first one offers a gloomy outlook, which is that climate change and refugee policy will play out in the same way. I certainly dread the idea of another interview given by a German Federal Minister about how we lack commitment when the consequences of our warming planet can no longer be ignored. “Oops, should have seen it coming, my bad.”
But we can also take the alternative route, using the current crisis as reminder that proactive actions are favorable in the long run. It will require adapting our way of thinking about climate change – a problem that is here to stay and one that will not disappear just because we ignore it. Germany, Europe, and the world need to take action to address both climate change and the current refugee crisis. Only then can we embark on the long path towards saving the planet.
About the author
Maximilian Betmann is a student of Political, Social and Economic Studies at the University of Würzburg, Germany. His main interests in the field of international relations are environmental science and space politics. In his free time, Maximilian likes to read about the awesomeness of space exploration.