A perspective focused on society is of central importance as an entry point for mitigating global heating and the impacts of climate change.
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the 18th century, at the very latest, and the exponential increase in resource consumption that began around this time, humankind has exerted enormous influence on the global ecosystem. This is why we consider that we are currently living in the Anthropocene—an epoch shaped by human influence. Against this background, the international climate protection goals agreed in Paris (on limiting anthropogenic global heating to an increase of significantly less than two degrees Celsius vis-à-vis preindustrial values) represent a planetary boundary established by the Earth system sciences. Beyond this boundary, tipping points leading to the irreversible destruction of life-sustaining habitats and environmental conditions could be reached. This is the context in which Germany, too, now faces new challenges as a member of the European Union and of the international community of nations.
Problem-solving approaches that can do justice to the complex social and technological dynamics of today’s societies will be key to finding lasting solutions to the challenges currently posed by climate change. The challenge of dispensing with fossil fuels is one obvious example. Policymakers can establish regulatory frameworks governing the production and use of energy and create incentives for sustainable behaviors. Society as a whole will have to be addressed to shift both production and consumption to low-carbon pathways. This will require a mix of conventional regulatory efforts, economic incentives, securing the involvement of numerous stakeholder groups and the commitment of civil society, and making fundamental adjustments to value systems.
The successful transition to a post-fossil economy depends on politics establishing a legally binding framework that gives stakeholders in the economy and society the security to make long-term plans and look confidently into the future. This transformative process will need to be guided by the principles of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights to ensure that freedoms are preserved and burdens fairly shared. The challenge here is to incorporate the planetary boundaries into the mechanisms of the democratic constitutional state. As climate change is a challenge for policy at every level, it is important that the local, national, regional (European, for example) and international levels are all addressed. The European Union’s Green New Deal is an important driver linking the international level (the Paris Agreement, the UN Sustainable Development Goals) with the national and regional levels. Successful climate policy requires an intelligent division of labor between all political levels to facilitate coherent solutions.
Possible conflicts are already foreseeable: How can and should politics approach decision-making in situations characterized by uncertainty and incomplete knowledge in the context of climate change mitigation? How can the transition to a climate-friendly society be shaped in a democratic and socially fair way that preserves freedoms without diluting the effectiveness of necessary measures?
State regulation can protect constitutionally guaranteed rights by providing legal certainty, protection against civil liability, and investment security amid competing interests. At the same time, politics must fulfill its responsibility to protect the environment, an imperative that also flows from the constitution. In this light, it is evident that the innovative potential of public policy, the process used by governments to cast their political vision in manifestos and actions to achieve their political aims, should also be mobilized.
Given the weak delivery of environmental and climate policy in day-to-day politics that has prevailed up to now, solutions such as mechanisms for “climate protection by procedure” will need to be contemplated and designed. In more concrete terms, what this means is that effective monitoring of the delivery of climate protection goals and plans that have been adopted must be integrated into the political process. In addition to organizational and institutional reforms to the process of democratic decision-making, a vision outlining the transition envisaged by policy and its implications for society will need to be developed and discussed. Such a vision will need to anchor the planetary boundaries within the political context and translate them into a narrative that is accessible to society. Solutions for society must, finally, also encompass the dimension of culture and speak to people in their local environments, in the neighborhoods where they live. Insights from the social sciences, cultural studies and psychology can all make an essential contribution to expanding the available solution space.