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Climate and Energy

“We are like frogs in boiling water – only shock will wake us”

Climate action has come to a political standstill, and in spite of mass mobilisation efforts, the general public still have not grasped the urgency of the situation. Will it really take something drastic to bring about real change? As more people begin to ask this question, some stop waiting for the answer and take control: by bringing climate change to the courtroom.

Green European Journal: Can you begin with telling us a bit about the Klimaatzaak campaign – what reasons drove you to start it, and can you give us an overview of what has happened so far?

Johan Van Der Bosch: It started some years ago. Some well-known people from the media, arts, and science helped us think about how we can contribute to the huge discussion of climate change. We were thinking about different types of actions, but in fact most of what we thought about had already been done by well-known organizations like Greenpeace or WWF, or other international, national or local organizations. We wanted to do something that was original, so we got in contact with Roger Cox, who headed the Urgenda case in the Netherlands. He convinced us to start a similar claim against the Belgian government, and we decided to do so over a year and a half ago and launched process last December.

Lambert Schoenmakers: He was especially inspiring at convincing us. He told us what was going on in the Netherlands, and our group thought the courtroom seemed like a good place to have an objective discussion about facts regarding this global climate war.

Looking to the success of the Urgenda case, and that of Client Earth UK against the British government’s air pollution levels, does this give you hope for the success of your own case?

Johan: The legal system in each country is different, so we have to wait and see. We still have a very strong case, and the success of Urgenda strengthens the idea that this can be possible for our case, too, in Belgium. Procedures in Belgium take longer than in the Netherlands, though, because of the complex situation of our governments – we have four or five of them, so there is a higher possibility of delays, meaning that our case can take up to two, three, even four years to close.

Lambert: I’m not sure I feel optimistic about it though. People don’t feel the direct influences of climate change in their everyday life. The process of climate change is going so slowly that the state of awareness is so little, so people don’t realise or take notice. The real way to change, to get people to act, is when people are directly involved; when they are really in danger because of one problem is when they’ll act.

How do you view public momentum in the run up to Paris, and do you think, if strong enough, it will be enough to influence the outcome of the negotiations?

Johan: Well, of course. Though, the relationship between public and political awareness is complex. Because of the lack of massive mobilization, which is reflected with poor voter turnout in elections, it is not always the parties that promote things like renewable energy that come under the spotlight. So we may have to wait until there is a consensus among the political majority to change things. That’s why going to court with this case is an important addition to public and political awareness. Both are important, but we don’t have time to wait for a political majority of 150% to get that traditional sources of energy are on the way out.

So do you think that actual change will necessitate legal, legitimate action?

Johan: No, not at all. It will take a combination of legal action and public pressure. It is very important to stress the idea that there is not one perfect way to change this world or to save it. The combination of all possibilities will make a difference. What we found out together with people in the Netherlands was that, especially for the legal aspects of climate change, there was still no action that had been taken. That is why we took this route. But it is important to note that this is not the only way, and that it can be unsuccessful. When different levels of society act – politically, locally – through things such as local initiatives, petitions, demonstrations, everything you can imagine – there can be a lot of ways to influence decision makers. The route we have taken is just one of them.

What do you think about the fact that there will be energy giants present at the COP?

Lambert: We are not naive that there could be a big influence from the fossil fuel establishment on the outcome. Even if they appear not to be there, they will be. They will be invisible. They will not be there directly, or for the television cameras, but will be influencing local politicians in their countries. They will always be there. I believe that most of the decisions have been already made and are already in writing. It is interesting to refer to a recent film: Merchants of Doubt. It paints a painful, but clear picture about creating an atmosphere of doubt. I can guarantee in the days before the COP, there will be press release saying that the IPCC have made a statement saying that the climate science they had relied on is not correct, or something to that effect. There are too powerful groups that want to create this atmosphere of doubt so that they can more easily influence the outcome. But after all, you have to believe that you can affect change, and you must put pressure on policy makers and believe that the good guys will probably, hopefully, win.

You both sound quite pessimistic about what’s going to come out of Paris. What do you think needs to be done then, if not at Paris, to actually generate change?

Lambert: People in all countries of the world have to influence their local governments, and say that they cannot come away from the COP with no agreement having been made, or that as a small country they don’t need to take responsibility. They need to increase the pressure on their governments to make change happen, using all methods at stake, and all legal methods. Then you can really affect change.

So you think that positive change will only come about in the event of something drastic happening to make people wake up?

Lambert: That’s what the experiences of mankind tells us. That’s not pessimism, but realism.

Johan: That’s the big threat. When you put a frog in a pot of water and boil it very slowly, he will not jump out, because he is not aware of the fact that the temperature is rising. This is us. We are living like frogs in a bucket of boiling water. There has been no moment of shock to get us to jump out of the fire, but there will be.

How do issues of climate link to or exacerbate other social issues?

Lambert: The issues are not separate, they are one and the same. It is incredible on this issue that some politicians say that climate change was a political issue some years ago, but now there is an economic crisis, and so these other issues are prioritised. They ignore the fact that we only have one planet that we can live on. That’s a very basic concept, so it’s very strange that often political agendas and priorities change from one thing to another, when really all these issues are connected to each other – climate change, racial struggles, feminist struggles, food and water scarcity, air pollution…

What is your view on geoengineering?

Johan: I do not believe in geoengineering as a suitable fix to our problems. More and more people think about miracles in a technical way, and see big solutions that catch carbon dioxide, or to place solar mirrors into space as viable options. We need to stay away from these ‘solutions’. They are not solutions – they are dangerous, and simply all they would do is to merely stall for time.

Lambert: This is really the outcome that we have to change personally. That’s sometimes the thing we want to ignore: that we can live for decades; spoiling energy, wasting, throwing everything away. The inconvenient truth is that we have to fundamentally change our lifestyles to prevent us from going back to the forest and living like we did a century ago, but we have to change it in a way that is sustainable. We have to avoid growth. To adapt, not to grow. There is something wrong with the market idea of growth, always growing in the same direction, and so on. It’s a real big issue here, and one that threatens the kind of change that we need.

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