Interview

Climate crisis

We need civic engagement and a clear legal framework

How bad do you think the climate crisis is?

Grießhammer: Without any counter-measures, the climate crisis will become a climate catastrophe. We are heading towards global warming of three degrees. That will mean more people dying of heat and many more extreme weather events like storms, floods, droughts - not just in Africa and Asia but also here in Germany.

Zwei Männer sitzen auf einer Bank vor einem großen BaumClimate expert Professor Dr Rainer Grießhammer (left) and Caritas president, Prelate Dr Peter Neher.Felix Groteloh

Neher: In the biblical story of the great flood, people’s greed and lack of consideration towards one another had catastrophic effects for the Earth. Consequently, God established a new covenant with Noah and once again entrusted him and all of us with the Earth. We were supposed to treat it well. I believe that the world will someday be finished, but it won’t end in catastrophe.

Grießhammer: So it’s absolutely urgent that we start producing all of our energy using renewables, make our buildings more energy-efficient, cut our meat consumption by half, and completely revamp our modes of transportation. The politicians must lay down the framework, but they can’t do everything alone. Everyone has to help.

Neher: I fully agree. We need more civic engagement, but we also need a clear legal framework. And we mustn’t separate the social component and the question of equal rights from environmental issues. People living in precarious conditions are the ones most affected by climate change. The Holy Pope Francis’s Laudato si is an encyclical on justice. It was the first time he linked the climate to social issues.

Grießhammer: Exactly. High-income households contribute much more to the greenhouse effect and global warming whilst low-income households are more likely to be negatively impacted by the measures to combat these problems. That’s why Switzerland implemented a carbon tax, giving the majority of the revenue it generates back to its residents at a rate per capita. Low-income households profit most because they consume less energy and contribute less to the greenhouse effect and carbon emissions. And large families profit. Of course, it’s important to keep an eye on how every climate protection measure affects low-income households and ensure they are compensated where appropriate.

Neher: The 130 km/h speed limit, carbon pricing, or a bonus for purchasing electric cars are all examples that show the government isn’t doing a great job. Tenants are being forced to pay for energy-efficient renovations via rent increases, but it’s the property owners who receive the financial support. Instead, the government could place conditions on receiving funding: the lower the rent, the higher the funding.

Grießhammer: Another idea would be for rent increases to only be permissible when the cost of heating is actually lower.

Neher: The Stromspar-Check programme, a home energy check, has been a success story for the ministry for the environment and Caritas. It has succeeded in minimising energy consumption and costs for low-income households. In doing so it has saved energy and thus the environment and people who have been unemployed for a long time have been trained as energy-saving assistants. This concept needs a broader base.

Grießhammer: Indeed. In our case, we took a look at the social and ecological factors for over 300,000 households, and the programme also had a positive effect on the overall financial situation of the municipalities as well as the participating households. The Stromspar-Check could become a model for the Caritas organisations and institutions.

Neher: Of course, Caritas also needs to step up. Recently, for example, we converted the furnace in one of our buildings. Our 2014 "Far away is closer than you think” campaign was not able to take hold throughout the organisation. Climate change will be a focal topic at the upcoming 2020 Assembly of Delegates in Aachen. We need to encourage more energy-efficient renovations for the buildings in which our services and institutions are located, and energy-efficient upgrades of our vehicle fleets. We hope that our "Caritas international” foreign-aid organisation will continue to provide support by offering seeds that are more resistant to periods of drought, constructing water retention basins, or generating power. An internal project group oversees all of these activities.

Grießhammer: The financial conditions are better today. There are more grants, interest is lower, but on the other side, the cost of energy is increasing thanks to carbon pricing. Many of Caritas’ 25,000 institutions are located in older buildings that need to be renovated. But protecting the climate needs to be part of our everyday lives. And it needs a clear strategy and resolute implementation.

Neher: And we need sponsors to participate and delegates who provide the impetus. For example, ecological aspects (e.g. textile chains, food, construction work) are also important factors for ensuring better care in senior’s homes. We need to go that extra mile. It’ll take iron resolve as well as a good political framework.

Grießhammer: Back to your comparison with Noah. He built the ark in response to the flood. In terms of the climate, the wealthier nations could build a few dams that would hold for a few years. But many of the effects can’t be compensated by any old measures.

Neher: Last year, I met some people from Caritas Fiji and Tonga. Their livelihoods are already being destroyed. If things continue this way, they’ll soon be environmental refugees. But should we be saying to developing and emerging countries: "Hold on, you can’t have the same standard of living we have otherwise you’d be endangering the planet we all share?” That would be arrogant. Yet at the same time, we know the situation would already be dire if they attained the same standard of living. So instead, we, too, have to take more drastic measures in terms of how we live.

Grießhammer: Exactly. But it would be wrong to say the developing nations aren’t allowed more economic growth or consumption. There are still 800 million starving people and 3.4 billion who live below the poverty line. Those people need sustainable development. I’m also very curious to see what the effects of the coronavirus crisis will be. Lots of people are noticing that consumption isn’t everything. Mutual support, friendship, reflecting on a different way of life are also very important.

Neher: The effects of the coronavirus crisis are very hard to foresee at this point. But if the result is more awareness for the need to take care of one another, that would be very valuable. Just as young people were expected to be considerate of the elderly during the coronavirus crisis due to the risk of infection, the elderly have to become more conscious of the effects of climate change for the younger generations. Even if they won’t be alive in 2050 or 2100, their grandchildren, who they missed so much in the past months, might still be alive. This awareness should be the basis for new policies for socially just climate protection.

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