As politicians in November early. promised more climate actionIn their opening speeches at the United Nations Climate Talks in Glasgow, Guillermo Fernandez started a hunger strike in Switzerland’s Federal Square, saying he wouldn’t eat again until the Swiss Federal Assembly agreed to a climate science briefing. He stated that he wanted his country to take greater climate action. As COP26 proceeded, and then closed, he lost weight—and hope.
Last week, Switzerland-based climate and biodiversity scientists penned a letter supporting Ferndandez’s demand as a reasonable one in the context of the escalating climate crisis. Some of them joined Ferndandez’s hunger strike in December, with one-day fasts.
Social scientists who study the climate protest movement believe that public self-starvation is a sign of growing anxiety about climate policy gridlock and a symbolic expression the desire to find new ways to accelerate climate action.
Ferndandez’s driving motivation is his concern for the future of his family. He said that his family is concerned about him, but they support him. After more than five weeks of fasting, he’d lost about 38 pounds and said he can feel his body transitioning to a different state with a much slower heartbeat. But he’s encouraged by the swelling number of messages of support and the possible gathering of votes in the assembly for a hearing.
The full parliament meets only three times a year in short sessions, and he said it’s important for the Swiss assembly, and other governments around the world, to address the climate crisis before time runs out.
“The situation for our kids looks very, very grim,” he said. “We are in front of something that is beyond evil. What is about to happen is atrocity. I ardently desire to live, but to protect the future of my children, I am ready to die.”
He said he started thinking about a hunger strike, and discussing it with his family, on August 9, his younger daughter’s birthday, as he finished reading the latest climate science assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“It got in my head, the scenarios,” he said. “The [most likely]The curve is your friend. There will be 2 degrees of warming by the middle of the century, and 3C by the end. This could lead to hunger and war all around.
“In 10 years time, when my daughter is about 20, she would lose total hope for the future,” he continued. “Anticipating the despair that she would feel…that really broke my soul.”
Switzerland “actively lobbied” against references about the need for rich countries to financially help poorer nations adapt to global warming at COP 26, strengthening Fernandez’s resolve to protest. Fernandez said that Swiss banks were also complicit by providing safe financial harbor to climate-damaging portfolios.
During COP26, Switzerland pledged a voluntary $25 million donation to an international climate adaptation fund, but Fernandez said that’s too little, too late.
“I feel ashamed,” he said, noting that Switzerland, as a rich country with a large carbon footprint, could actually help lead the way to a quick transition to a low carbon world. “I know Switzerland is a bad player in that game. I want them to be a good player.”
In their letter, scientists who contribute to intergovernmental climate change and biodiversity reports urged the Swiss government to accede to Fernandez’s demand for a climate briefing.
“Some of us support Guillermo in his hunger strike, while others deplore the fact that it has taken the extreme measure of a concerned father and citizen to raise the issue to a level of national importance,” they wrote.
All countries need to consider the latest scientific evidence about the climate crisis, and adopt policies that decarbonize societies quickly. This will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by half in the next thirty years, according to the statement. Sonia Seneviratne, a climate researcher at ETH Zürich who signed the letter.
Social ecology researcher and climate activist, John McKinsey, stated that hunger strikes are a personal expression of the rising tide of civic climate activism. Julia Steinberger, with University of Lausanne. Young people know they will be most affected, so, in recent years, they’ve marched in the streets by the millions with Fridays For Future and mobilized politically with the Sunrise Movement and other campaigns in the United States, she said. Climate activists have committed hundreds of acts civil disobedience to disrupt business as usual, including peaceful occupations at large logging, pipeline, and coal mine projects all over the globe.
While the scale and scope of these movements may be historically significant, they still haven’t slowed the rumbling of fossil fuel development. 26 years have passed since the first annual global climate negotiations began. the first U.N. Conference of the Parties in 1995 in BerlinCarbon dioxide emissions from industry and fossil fuels have increased. 56 percent.
The climate movement has had few successes. Scientific certainty is growing that failure to reduce greenhouse gases quickly will lead to climate-driven disasters affecting billions of people all over the globe. A research paper in NatureThese concerns were widely expressed in the scientific community at the beginning of COP26, and they can be very emotional.
The survey revealed that a majority of scientists expect to see severe climate impacts in their lifetimes. Climate concerns have influenced major decisions in people’s lives, and more than 60% of the respondents agreed. “said that they experience anxiety, grief or other distress because of concerns over climate change,”The study concluded.
Steinberger said that such emotions can cause extreme acts like hunger strikes. She is concerned about a copycat effect, which could spread to younger people.
“One of the things I’m worried about is that the climate movement is young, and young people feel things more intensely,” she said. “It’s one thing if a grownup does it. Guillermo does not want young people doing this.”
Similar actions in the past, including Mahatma Gandhi’s anti-colonial hunger strikes, show that, as dangerous as they can be, such protests can foment “the ultimate social pressure,” which can spur change, she said. She also said that fasting is a deeply personal decision that can be easily ignored. She organized scientists to write the letter in support of Fernandez so he couldn’t be marginalized.
“He’s a serious guy, a committed citizen, and I wanted people to be able to see him as a person,” she said. “He is putting himself in danger for us. it’s a personal act, but also an altruistic act.”
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In recent months, other climate-concerned hunger strikesrs have also attempted to move the political needle. As COP26 began in the United States, a group of four activists fasted at the United States Capitolto push Congress to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Activists in Germany threatened to refuse food until leaders of major parties met. Protest endedOlaf Scholz was elected chancellor and he agreed to meet with hunger strikers in the public after the election.
In Austria, the Extinction Rebellion activists were active last summer. Martha KrumpeckA hunger strike was started to get the Vienna city government to acknowledge the negative climate effects of a proposed highway project. The government placed a halt to the project until it had been reviewed for climate impacts.
Is there a better method?
Even if hunger strikes may be able to influence environmental policies, nobody believes that they are the best way forward to address the climate crisis. What else is there to do, given the slow progress made at the United Nations climate negotiations?
Some climate policy researchers say it’s time to think about climate governance—the process of developing and implementing climate policies—outside the boundaries of the United Nations process.
“Are there any actors out there that could be an alternative to the UNFCCC?” said climate policy researcher Charlotte Unger, with the Institute for Advanced Sustainability StudiesPotsdam, Germany. Urgency is growing, she said, because the climate pledges so far under the United Nations process aren’t enough to avert dangerous warming.
“I think we really need to start looking,” she said. “What accelerators are there; what can we bring into this to broaden our efforts to meet our climate goals?”
Climate clubs—smaller groups of countries, or even non-national actors, that can take actions with global significance are one option to consider, Unger said. COP26, for example, saw more than 100 countries pledged to cut methane emissions 30 percentBy 2030. The planet is heated by methane 81 times faster than carbon dioxide in the short-term, so a reduction could slow down the short-term global warming rate. The following is a 2020 research paperShe demonstrated how climate clubs can complement United Nations’ climate framework, which includes the Paris Agreement.
Other climate governance options being tried right now include citizen’s climate assemblies, such as those recently held in France and Germany, as well as ballot initiatives that would write climate goals into national constitutions. Another form of governance could be climate lawsuits. Some of these have already forced countries to change their environmental policy.
However, many of those options aren’t binding and might not be strong enough at this point, according to David McLean of Rutgers University, who views climate through the lenses of philosophy as well as business ethics. He supports the creation a global climate authority with some enforcement power, possibly under the auspices U.N. Security Council.
McLean stated that countries could lose some autonomy in the short-term due to worsening climate impacts. This would be a threat to their long-term security. There is precedent in the realm of international trade, regulated with “robust enforcement mechanisms,” including sanctions, like those used by the World Trade Organization. An international escrow program could give teeth to such a system, where countries would forfeit part of their deposit if it fails to meet climate goals.
There’s too much at stake to rely on non-binding agreements, “when it comes to saving the world from the worst climate change will cause,” he said. “How can voluntary compliance be a proper moral response?”
Bob Berwyn, an Austrian-based freelance journalist who has covered international climate policy and climate science for more than a decade. He was previously a reporter on the environment, endangered species, and public lands at several Colorado newspapers. He also served as an assistant editor at Colorado Rockies community newspapers.