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FANVoices | The Climate Opportunity

The Real Climate Opportunity – Creating the World Anew

By Johannes Stangl, Member of the Forum Alpbach Network (FAN) Board

Can you remember the pictures of the alienating red glooming sky when hellish wildfires scorched Australia, Siberia and California during a record-breaking heatwave in 2020? It feels like ages ago, since the pandemic consumed our attention in the meantime, but indeed: the climate crisis is upon us, the unprecedented wildfires being just the most vivid recent embodiment of this simple fact. Even if stories of a healing nature during the first lockdown might have brought some temporary relief to our collective environmental consciousness, the miniscule effect of halted industrial activity will quickly be forgotten, if the economic recovery does not address the roots of an unsustainable and unjust status quo. And while the world yearns for the prospect of bringing the pandemic under control, the possibility of staying within the 1.5°C limit of average warming above pre-industrial levels silently moves out of reach.

For anyone who is somewhat aware of the existential need to address climate change the pandemic has indeed been a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, the pandemic hit when the public discourse on climate change reached a peak of intensity. The global climate justice movement had been taking the streets for over a year by then and virtually no political force could afford not to engage in the discussion on how to combat the climate crisis. In Austria, a newly elected government formed by the conservatives and the greens entered office with the historic vision of decarbonizing Austria within the next 20 years. The immediate need to address the global spread of an unknown virus put a break on all of those discussions.

On the other hand, the climate movement watched with astonishment when the measures to combat the corona virus effected what they had been demanding regarding the climate crisis: to act swiftly and to act according to the scope of the crisis at hand. The lesson was that governments could implement unprecedented changes to how society functions, if they deemed a problem important enough.

This is indeed an important lesson as the climate crisis is primarily not a problem of energy production, but a crisis of societal organization. What the pandemic and the climate crisis have in common is how they fortify existing injustices on every level. Therefore, the question of equity and compensation must be at the heart of every consideration on how to combat climate change. We have seen how differently the pandemic affected different countries and different members of society. The question of global vaccine distribution being just the latest question of justice that arose in this regard. We can no longer afford to make the same mistake over and over again and think that mere technological innovation will guide a way out of any crisis of global scale – be it the pandemic or the climate emergency.

The real climate opportunity lies in rethinking how we want to continue living on our one and only planet Earth. It dares us to ask the big questions about what we value as a society and to develop a new self-conception that breaks with the 20th century maxim of ego-centred accumulation of wealth and similar destructive cultural obsessions. There is an opportunity in every crisis, but since the global carbon budget will be exhausted within the next seven years, this might be our last one. Let’s gather at EFA 2021 with the determination to take it.


Johannes Stangl co-founded the Austrian Fridays For Future movement and is a member of the current Forum Alpbach Network board. His background lies in physics, data science and philosophy.