The West will not act on climate change until it feels its pain

Pleas from the Global South will not stir Western government into action. Only Western suffering will.

Cartoon depicting a white man walking through a desert holding a gas bucket
[Patrick Gathara/Al Jazeera]

If there is anything that has been true in the history of the world, it is that states, and especially Western states, rarely if ever act out of a sense of moral compulsion, when such acts could impose hardships back home. Look at the rhetoric around support for Ukraine following the Russian invasion as an example.

While the conflict has been presented in starkly moralistic terms, as the West helping brave Ukraine stand up to Russian bullies, it has been clear that moralism can be quickly discarded in the face of discomfort for their citizens. The prospect of cold European homes and high prices motivated the European Union to leave a myriad of loopholes in its sanctions to allow for the flow of Russian gas and oil to continue. When Russian gas was cut off, European governments did not hesitate to reach out to various fossil fuel-rich autocrats they otherwise regularly criticise for their dismal human rights record.

As Africans learned long ago during the Cold War, global powers are more than happy to wage supposed wars of principle on other peoples’ lands, sacrificing other peoples’ welfare but not their own.

The same dynamic is evident in the narratives and proposals that were tabled at the latest United Nations Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Lots of the talk was about helping the unfortunately-situated “Global South” cope with the ravages of extreme weather events such as droughts and floods, and helping them transition into greener sources of energy.

Like during the Cold War, the West is actively theatre-shopping, recruiting countries to serve as arenas for its climate fight. Switzerland, for example, plans to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, not by actually reducing them, which might require inconveniencing its citizens, but by paying countries like Ghana to reduce its emissions and give it credit.

The idea would be for the Swiss government to pay for efficient lighting and cleaner stoves to be installed in Ghanaian households and claim the resulting reduction in emissions as its own. Switzerland is not the only Western nation to use such carbon-offsetting schemes, which displace climate action from rich polluting nations and frame poorer nations that have contributed little to the crisis as the ones that need to change the most.

They were very much present at COP 27, too. The United States, for example, unveiled a new carbon trading scheme that supposedly would help poorer nations transition to cleaner energy. In it, large Western companies would invest in renewable energy projects in the Global South in exchange for being allowed to continue emitting large quantities of greenhouse gases. As environmentalists have pointed out, this is little more than another scheme allowing Western Big Business to continue polluting and reaping large profits.

However, Western talk about transition by poorer countries is not only about deflecting from a focus on their reluctance to decarbonise their own economies and shifting the blame for the climate problems to those least responsible for them. It is also an example of what 19th-century German economist Friedrich List called “kicking away the ladder”.

“It is a very common clever device that when anyone has attained the summit of greatness, he kicks away the ladder by which he has climbed up, in order to deprive others of the means of climbing up after him,” he wrote in 1841.

While List applied this to the familiar prescriptions of free trade by the British who had themselves clambered up the ladder of mercantilism, it is just as applicable to today’s push by the West to have others not follow their energy path to the top, while they keep the advantages of such ascension – an approach they have also applied to nuclear weapons technology.

In response, many non-Western countries have been keen to either highlight the injustice of having to bear the cost of mitigating extreme weather events caused by others. They have also appealed to the Western sense of self-preservation by arguing, as the prime minister of the Bahamas has, that climate change would send hordes of refugees to Europe, overwhelming the systems of privilege the West has built to insulate itself from the problems it has caused in the rest of the world.

However, both these approaches accept a faulty premise: that climate change is primarily a problem for the Global South, with the West escaping largely unscathed, yet again managing to outsource the pain to the rest of the globe.

Yet, a report from the World Meteorological Organization released on November 2 said “temperatures in Europe have increased at more than twice the global average over the past 30 years – the highest of any continent in the world” and predicted “exceptional heat, wildfires, floods and other climate change impacts will affect society, economies and ecosystems”.

Just this year, the effects of this have been startlingly visible. The region suffered extreme heatwaves that caused the worst drought in half a millennium, dried up rivers and reservoirs, fuelled wildfires that destroyed more than 660,000 hectares (1.63 million acres) of land and killed at least 15,000 people. Further west, states in the US are battling a 22-year megadrought, the worst in a millennium, and across North America, water levels in rivers, lakes and reservoirs are dropping.

Rather than appealing to the West’s conscience or pushing the tale that they will only be indirectly affected by the folly of their actions, the world should borrow the language of JRR Tolkien in The Hobbit: “If this is to end in fire, then we should all burn together.”

The fact is, the West has just as much to lose, if not more, than the rest of us, from the climate crisis. Using the tropes of the 1990s’ humanitarian appeals that portray Global South folk as helpless victims will only inspire the same superficial, charitable responses that are designed to make the giver look and feel good, rather than address the problem – as Switzerland has demonstrated.

Rather than saving Brazilian rainforests, maybe a better and more impactful discussion would be what to do about the drying Seine. Rather than the image of climate change being floods in Pakistan, perhaps it should be the thousands dying in heatwaves in the United Kingdom.

In the end, it is not our pain and suffering that will move the West in any meaningful way. It is a recognition of their own. And only when we change the conversation can we expect that to happen.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.