Europe and the Fate of the Earth – Part 7 of 7

November 8, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)


[This is an extended version of my keynote address for the European Cultural Foundation’s ‘Imagining Europe’ event, which was held in Amsterdam between October 4 and 7 this year. The address was delivered on October 4 at the opening event. It will be posted here without footnotes, as a 7 part series. A fully annotated version will be posted later in the ‘Essays’ section of this site.]


Where then can leadership on climate change come from? It is clear that it will come neither from the United States nor from ’emergent nations’ like India, China and Brazil. This leaves only one other possibility: Europe. If there is a silver lining in this grim scenario, it is that Europe happens to have arrived at a point where it is singularly well-suited to take the lead. Here are the reasons why:

Firstly, if there was ever a transnational issue then it is climate change – the weather has no respect for national boundaries and borders. Yet in the face of this dire crisis, many nations, especially the larger and more powerful, are pursuing their national interests ever more aggressively. Nationalism is indeed one of the most pernicious threads in the helix of disaster.

Europe, where nationalism was born, and which has endured its worst excesses, is the only part of the world that has succeeded in articulating and acting upon a vision of political organization that goes beyond the nation-state. Its progress down that path has been slow and fitful, it is true, but I think deep down Europeans understand and appreciate the world-historical significance of the project they have embarked upon (the recent Dutch elections are proof of this). A few other parts of the world have also moved towards transnational co-operation – South-East Asia and the Andean countries are two examples. If these pockets of post-nationalism could join hands they could have a significant impact.

Secondly, experience shows us that if climate change is to be tackled effectively then it will require stringent regulation and oversight by national and transnational bodies. That the issue has burst upon us at a time when much of the world is in thrall to an ideology of laissez-faire is but another aspect of the catastrophic convergence that we are now faced with. In the United States, in India, and in many other countries the domain of the public interest has narrowed to a sliver, and corporations have effectively captured the machinery of government, including regulatory bodies.

In this too Europe is an exception: the public good continues to be a cherished ideal, and regulatory oversight is accepted to be one of the most important functions of government. This perhaps is why corporations have not been able to create an industry of climate denial in Europe. As a result the European public is far better informed about climate change than people elsewhere.

Thirdly, climate change cannot be addressed without a historical reckoning. We are, as I have said, at a moment when what once seemed like success is revealed to be folly; when old remedies are seen to be the causes of the disease. To move ahead will require a massive change of expectations amongst people. Unfortunately, in most countries around the world, this is politically speaking, an impossible message to communicate. In China and Russia, political stability is premised on the delivery of rising standards of living; in the USA, India and many other democracies, elections depend on stoking expectations. This is yet another thread in the helix of disaster.

Here again Europe provides cause for hope. Europe knows what it means to disavow the past: this was one of the impulses that led to the founding of the European Union. But even here, it will not be easy to educate people into a realistic awareness of what lies ahead – but this is one place where it could succeed and if it does it will set an example for the world.

Fourthly, most European countries still continue to provide a high level of basic education. This is in marked contrast to (for example) the United States and Canada, which both have high levels of functional illiteracy. For this reason too, the public culture of Europe has not yet retreated into a world of celebrity-worship, spectacle and fantasy, as is the case in most English-speaking countries and in India. Europe is one (perhaps the only) part of the world where the populace at large could understand the nature of the changes that confront us.

Finally, Europe is equipped to lead on this issue because it is the one part of the world that has already undertaken large-scale preparations for climate change. No country is a better example of this than Holland. As a non-European it is with awe and envy that I follow reports on the preparations that Holland has already made for dealing with sea level rise – the sea gates, the floating dwellings that have been made available to people; the plans for evacuating a third of the country, and so on.

The project of Europe has been flawed in many ways: it was excessively bureaucratic; it placed the interests of business above those of people; it was half-hearted in some respects and over-reached in others. But let us not forget Europe’s successes. Along with Japan, it was Europe that took the lead in the negotiations for Kyoto; Europe has also tried in good faith to find a way towards an equitable solution to the problem of climate change. Europe’s credibility on this issue is such that it is in a position to lead, not as it has in the past, by dominance and coercion, but by example.

Through most of the journey that has brought the world to this fork in the road, Europe has led the way. In doing so it has created an immense continent of carbon in the atmosphere, a dark shadow wholly out of proportion to its size. Now that we have arrived at this turn in the road it is clear that what lies ahead is not a fork but an unbridgeable, steadily-growing chasm. We can only hope that Europe will now take the lead once again, in showing us how best to turn back.





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