A summer as an object lesson

In Ahmedabad (India), an air conditioning system will bring cooling, end of May 2018.
Political article
Summer 2018. Heat, drought, millions in damage. Extremes of climate in the northern hemisphere. It could, it must be the turning point in the perception of climate change. Even in Switzerland.

The scorching hot summer of 2018 has clearly demonstrated the vulnerability of planet earth. The media have outdone themselves with illustrated reports of sweltering heat, dried out streams and persistent drought that is bringing agribusiness to its knees even in the West. We are able to follow massive and disastrous fires in Greece, California and – for the first time ever – in the Swedish polar circle, virtually in real time.

The reason for the media attention was threefold: the scale of the various weather records and extreme climate events, the simultaneity of these extreme events and the fact that they were taking place in the northern hemisphere. For countless millions in the global South, this climate change-driven freak weather has been a bitter reality for years. Yet the cries for help from Pacific island communities and severely threatened coastal dwellers in Asia, or the silent suffering of subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa hardly ever make it into our living rooms. Will they in future be receiving more attention in the North – were climate policy is made? We can hardly make such an assumption. As far as Switzerland is concerned, we will remember the summer of 2018 primarily for the pleasant Mediterranean atmosphere that prevailed.

There was copious press commentary and analysis both foreign and domestic. Saleemul Huq writing in the Daily Star (Dhaka, Bangladesh) spoke of the “tipping point”, by which he not only meant that it was no longer possible to stave off climate change, but was also referring to the fact that reality has caught up with the scientific weather predictions. As pertains to dealing with heat, Amy Fleming in the Guardian sees this as “the next major inequality issue” and juxtaposes the homeless in Québec, women giving birth in Manila, urban slum dwellers in Cairo and 80,000 Syrian refugees in Za’atari in Jordan, all exposed to the heat without protection; she does not neglect to mention that the drought in north-eastern Syria was one of the triggers of the civil war.

Georg Diez in Der SPIEGEL takes a more basic approach and, under the title «Climate Change and Capitalism», calls for our lifestyle to be negotiable. The phenomenon of global warming was diverting attention from the real issue of social inequality, which should be mainstreamed together with environmental issues. In the "postcolonial greenhouse", Charlotte Wiedemann in the taz also recognizes signs that the "predominantly white perpetrators" are finally acknowledging that global warming is also a matter of justice.

In his commentary "Summer 2018 is a wake-up call that should not go unheeded", NZZ Science Editor Christian Speicher speaks of the "very hot summer that could soon become the norm". And he pens a sentence that one would love to see on NZZ world format posters: "We have still adapted far too little to the new reality" – climate change is therefore the new reality and we must adapt to it. So far, neither message has found a majority in the Federal Palace (or in the mainstream media).

Writing in Der Bund, Markus C. Schulte von Drach takes aim at the worldwide political caste, calling on them for a "Revolution of reason". In the WOZ Bettina Dyttrich made the connection between climate and social policy on the one hand and development policy on the other: dependent on the financial centre among other things, Switzerland’s economy considers itself barely vulnerable. Yet instead of reflecting on the common challenges in «Spaceship Earth», the dominant approach here at home, as in the global North in general, continues to be selfishness and isolationism.

SRF Television reports on the dilemma facing National Councillor Andreas Aebi, farmer and Head of the Emmental SVP Branch, who realizes that "something is happening", and breaks with the party line by placing on record that climate change is making itself felt on his very own farm.

Is Swiss policy shifting?

The farmers’ association already spoke out during the summer holidays. After the cold snaps of spring 2017 which did extensive damage to fruit crops, farmers are growing increasingly worried at this year’s record heat and lack of rain. Grazing meadows are turning into dusty Mediterranean landscapes, winter hay had to be fed to cattle instead of being stocked up, and in isolated cases cattle even had to be slaughtered as a matter of necessity. One cannot help but sit up and take notice of the call for emergency government assistance – relaxation of tariffs on hay imports and immediate subsidies – from none other than that political camp which up to now has balked at any coherent climate policy.

The heatwave has also left its mark on the first session of the National Council's Environment Commission after the summer recess. Contrary to the Federal Council's proposal, suddenly the taxing of kerosene and fuels, or even the funding of climate adaptation measures were no longer taboo. Is reason beginning to prevail over the interests of the petroleum and automotive lobby? For the time being, they have failed in their attempt to secure free access to the Swiss market for gas guzzling SUVs also under the new CO2 law. But disappointment followed immediately, as the Federal Roads Office (ASTRA) announced that new road standards were needed, in other words broader streets, as vehicles were constantly getting bigger. 

For now, there is still a vague hope that the very hot summer will help prompt Swiss policymakers in future to look at the big picture – in other words beyond national borders – and to cease thinking of climate change as a phenomenon of concern only to the southern hemisphere. What is certain is that Switzerland's recollection of summer 2018 will be shaped by the fact that “despite the beautiful summer weather” we were not allowed to do barbecues or set off fireworks on 1 August. It is this very well-known blend of ignorance and opportunism that soon again will be determining the political (and many private) agendas. Or, to cite Bettina Dyttrich yet again: "Many on the European Left are outraged by colonial injustice, while finding it perfectly normal to fly halfway around the world several times a year."

Speaking with Dennis Bühler of Die Republik, political oracle Claude Longchamp predicts that climate change will be unable to hold its own against topics such as relations with the EU, pension reform or corporate taxation until the Parliamentary elections – unless 2019 turns out to be “a repeat of this summer”. In an interview with the SonntagsZeitung, psychologist Vivianne Visschers expresses regret that climate change is just one of many factors that shape our behaviour. An attempt at behavioural change would fail initially because of the price involved – in the monetary and metaphorical senses. Moreover, humans set greater store by the immediate utility of their actions today than by their future consequences.

On the difference between North and South

Let us hope that the realization of the need to adapt to inevitable climate changes will gain traction not only in the farmers’ association but also in the business sector and society. This insight, it is worth noting, has long become a priority for predominantly agricultural societies in the global South. The major difference is that the latter cannot count on emergency government aid, let alone systematic support in their struggle against climate change.

This was precisely why the Paris climate agreement committed the western world to providing at least US$100 billion per year for international climate financing. As Alliance Sud has maintained for years, Switzerland’s fair share of this is about Frs 1 billion per year. This is commensurate not only with our 1 per cent share of the income of industrialized countries, but also with our climate footprint. It should no longer be that grey emissions arising outside our national borders generated by the consumer goods we import, and which are almost twice as much as local emissions, continue to fall outside the national sense of responsibility of the political mainstream. It is the height of cynicism to dismiss the funding of measures against the disastrous impacts of climate change mostly generated by the West as “a matter of concern to developing countries”. Or as so accurately stated by Dietmar Mirkes in the Luxembourg magazine "Brennpunkt Drëtt Welt", for us to continue to “hit-and-run” day in, day out.

The argument wielded like a mantra in Switzerland against increasing the climate funding assistance we owe under international law – the supposed popular opposition to any mobilization of additional funding – was debunked this summer. According to a survey by the Swiss Energy Foundation (SES), 60 per cent of the population take the view, for example, that not only should the current tax exemption and subsidies for air traffic be scrapped but – on the contrary – a flight ticket tax should be brought in. A third of respondents would willingly pay Frs 50 or more on a flight within Europe. And just about half of them stated their openness to seeing the revenue used to support climate protection and adaptation measures in developing countries (in addition to climate and research projects here at home). 

This is in line with the study published by Alliance Sud in mid-September (see box text). It looked at various instruments for mobilizing additional funds and concludes that not only is the billion in climate funding within the realm of the possible, but will also generate relatively negligible additional costs in line with the polluter-pays principle. A flight ticket tax alone, in the same amount already being levied in the United Kingdom, could generate Frs 1 billion annually.

How Switzerland's billion in climate funding could be raised

js. A new study commissioned by Alliance Sud – it is accessible on the Alliance Sud website – shows possible ways of funding additional support contributions for urgently needed climate protection and adaptation measures in the poorest and most vulnerable developing countries.

The study explores 11 innovative approaches and draws the conclusion that the 1 billion in climate funding to be raised under the Paris climate accord is politically plausible and feasible for Switzerland. With a mix of the proposed instruments, costs can be distributed among various CO2 emitters – according to the polluter-pays principle. In this way such instruments would also fulfil the desired steering role.

In the context of the current review of the CO2 law, the study specifically raises for discussion the introduction of a flight ticket tax, earmarking the CO2 tax as well as broadening it to include petrol and diesel, a tax on foreign emission certificates, raising the mineral oil tax as well as an exemption tax for CO2-exempt enterprises.

Politicians and Administration have countered some of the funding instruments proposed in the study over recent years by raising constitutional concerns. Alliance Sud will shortly be responding to these with a legal opinion.