If there is anything true about the history of the world, it is that states, especially Western states, rarely, if ever, act out of a sense of moral compulsion, when such acts can cause hardship at home. Look at the rhetoric surrounding support for Ukraine after the Russian invasion as an example.

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

As Africans learned long ago during the Cold War, world powers are happy to wage supposed wars of principle against other people’s lands, sacrificing other people’s wealth, but not their own.

The same dynamic is evident in the stories and proposals submitted at the last United Nations climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Many of the conversations centered around helping the sadly situated “Global South” deal with the ravages of extreme weather events such as droughts and floods, and helping them transition to greener energy sources.

As during the Cold War, the West is actively shopping theaters and recruiting countries to serve as arenas for its climate battle. Switzerland, for example, plans to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, not by actually reducing them, which may hinder citizens, but by Pay 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 property. Switzerland is not the only Western nation to use such carbon offset schemes, which crowd out climate action from rich polluting countries and view poorer countries that contributed little to the crisis as those most in need of change.

They were also very present at COP 27. For example, the United States unveiled a new carbon trading system that supposedly would help poorer countries transition to cleaner energy. In it, large Western companies would invest in sustainable energy projects in the Global South in exchange for being allowed to continue to emit large amounts of greenhouse gases. As environmentalists have pointed out, this is little more than yet another scheme that allows Western big business to continue to pollute and make big profits.

Western talk of transition by poorer countries, however, is not just about diverting the focus from their unwillingness to decarbonize their own economies and shift the blame for climate problems to those least responsible for them. It is also an example of what the 19th-century German economist Friedrich List called “kicking down the ladder.”

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

While List applied this to the trusted precepts of free trade by the British who themselves had climbed the ladder of mercantilism, it applies equally well to the West’s current pressures not to let others follow their energy path to the top, while they continue to enjoy the benefits of such ascension – an approach they have also applied to nuclear weapons technology.

In response, many non-Western countries have been keen to point out that it is unfair 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, like the Prime Minister of the Bahamas hasthat climate change would send hordes of refugees to Europe and overwhelm the systems of privilege the West has built to isolate itself from the problems it has created in the rest of the world.

However, both approaches start from a false premise: that climate change is primarily a problem for the South, with the West escaping largely unscathed and once again managing to outsource the pain to the rest of the world.

But a World Meteorological Organization report released Nov. 2 said that “temperatures in Europe have risen more than twice the global average over the past 30 years — the highest of any continent in the world” and predicted ” extreme heat, wildfires, floods and other impacts of climate change will affect society, economies and ecosystems.”

Only this year the effects of this are surprisingly visible. The region suffered extreme heat waves that caused the worst drought in half a millennium, dried up rivers and reservoirs, sparked 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 experiencing a 22-year mega-drought, the worst in a millennium, and water levels in rivers, lakes and reservoirs are falling across North America.

Rather than appeal to the conscience of the West or push the narrative 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 should end in fire, then we must all burn together.”

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

Rather than saving Brazilian rainforests, perhaps a better and more impactful discussion would be what to do about the drying up Seine. Instead of portraying climate change as flooding in Pakistan, perhaps it should be the thousands dying in UK heatwaves.

Ultimately, it is not our pain and suffering that will meaningfully move the West. It is a self-recognition. And only when we change the conversation can we expect that to happen.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.





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