50 years have passed since the first UN environment summit. Shortly before, the Club of Rome had presented its groundbreaking study “The Limits to Growth”. The Stockholm 50 conference recognizes these milestones. But there is no reason to celebrate.

It has been half a century since the Club of Rome shook the world with its 1972 study The Limits to Growth. It was the first widely recognized inventory of what man is doing to the earth and how he is gradually destroying his own habitat. It cannot be said that nothing has happened since then. From caustic 1970s slogans such as “Back to the Stone Age” to the expansion of wind and solar energy, from the “end of the car industry” propagated at the time by the catalytic converter to the electric car suitable for everyday use, or from the unrestrained exploitation of fossil resources and the unchecked pollution of the Air towards filter technologies and the phase-out of coal – these are quite remarkable paths. Still, five decades after the Club of Rome release, we’re still far from where we’re headed. Above all, it is as clear as day: We are far too slow.

Heads of government and environment ministers wanted to spend two days during the Stockholm 50 conference, according to the declaration of intent. The event commemorated the first UN conference on environmental issues, held at the same location just shortly after the Club of Rome’s publication in 1972. The conference at that time is also considered a milestone, the hour of birth of international environmental policy. At that time, the UN environmental program Unep was launched. Many countries around the world created environment ministries for the first time. International environmental agreements came about. The world climate conferences followed later, which finally produced the target in Paris of limiting global warming to well below 2.0 degrees, ideally to 1.5 degrees – basically a kind of emergency decision so as not to increase the damage already done.

Accelerated climate crisis: 1.5 degree target reached soon

1.5 degrees is still the benchmark. It is practically certain that this will also be torn. The World Weather Organization recently announced that within the next few years, in all probability by 2026 at the latest, the average temperature will reach or even exceed this value for at least one year. There’s a 50 percent chance that it will. When the Paris summit celebrated the 1.5 degree target in 2015, it was still considered practically impossible that the mark could be reached within five years. Worse still: Even the 2.0-degree mark, below which the Paris summit “clearly” wanted to stay, can no longer be maintained, according to the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) last year.

This means that the climate crisis is accelerating, and our previous countermeasures are not keeping pace. Disasters such as the current unprecedented heat in India, the devastating Ahr Valley flood, the recurring, almost uncontrollable forest and bush fires in California and Australia or the gradually increasing drought, which is also affecting Germany, are making the consequences of climate change increasingly noticeable. The main reasons why activist groups like Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion or Last Generation resort to increasingly drastic protest actions to spur on decision-makers.

You have to live differently in a full world than in an empty one

Of course, the Club of Rome did not foresee this in detail 50 years ago – certainly not a multi-crisis situation with global warming, corona pandemic and war in Ukraine. Methods and criteria of the historical report have been repeatedly criticized over the years, and the club itself has also presented several updates. However, many a problem recognized as early as 1972 still plays a role in the fight against climate change. This includes the rapidly growing world population. Fifty years ago there were fewer than four billion people; next year there will be twice as many. They leave an “unbearably large” ecological footprint, as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres admitted in Stockholm.

“In a world like this, you have to live and think differently than in an empty world,” said Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, co-president of the Club of Rome for six years, in a 2018 star interview. That was also four years ago. The population can be effectively stabilized through self-determination by women, good health care for babies and children, and reliable old-age provision (to overcome traditional old-age provision through having many children), Weizsäcker and colleagues wrote in a follow-up report by the Club of Rome in 2017. But since then the world population has increased by another half a billion.

All these people want to be taken care of; eat, live, develop – and leave their carbon footprint. Only steady economic growth seems to be able to support such a large population. But since the planet’s resources are known to be finite, limits to economic growth are a logical consequence. Although the study of post-growth societies in sociology and economics was stimulated by the 1972 report, the Club of Rome is now less dogmatic about its basic thesis of the growth limit. If there is no growth, Weizsäcker and his co-authors wrote in 2017, “social conflicts and catastrophes can occur very quickly.” One should not simply preach anti-growth. “That’s no use.”

In search of a sustainable balance

But how do you bring ecology and economy into a sustainable balance? And above all: How can the process be accelerated? There have long been serious doubts that conferences like Stockholm 50 are the right tools. The structures in which the official negotiators operate are too rigid and tough: “It is very difficult to reach a consensus among almost 200 countries – especially when there are a few countries that don’t want to do anything,” said Klima -Scientist Saleemul Huq, who has been to all previous climate summits, the star after the COP26 in Glasgow last year. “That’s why the heads of state tend not to reach an agreement.”

As if in confirmation, Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said at the beginning of the 50 session: “This is not a meeting that sets new goals, because the world has already set ambitious goals.” But how often the goals were ambitious, but the urge to achieve them was clearly too small. It took a pandemic for global emissions of the most harmful greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, to drop noticeably; meanwhile it has been rising again rapidly for a long time. We “have not kept our promises in relation to the environment,” Guterres drew a bitter balance after 50 years of climate policy. “We must now change course and end our senseless and suicidal war against nature,” he then demanded. God knows not the first time.

Driven only by catastrophes that have already occurred?

But although the Stockholm 50 conference stated that it wanted to discuss how to speed up the implementation of measures against climate change, species extinction and littering, no concrete decisions were planned from the outset. This was accordingly held against critics such as the well-known Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate. But Nakate clarified, “They make fancy speeches, but that won’t save suffering communities or stop the planet from warming.”

So can only catastrophes like the Ahr Valley flood or the brutal Ukraine war, which is currently driving the turn to renewable “freedom energies” (Finance Minister Christian Lindner, FDP), be a real driving force for faster climate protection measures? Apparently that’s the case. But this time the much-vaunted adaptability of mankind threatens to reach its limits.

Quickly reaching the point where we can no longer adapt

“People don’t understand the scale of what’s going on,” renowned Canadian climate researcher Katharine Hayhoe told the British “Guardian” on the occasion of the Stockholm conference. If things continue as they are, “the world will quickly reach a point beyond what we can adapt to.” Our entire infrastructure, which has been built up over decades, will then be built for a planet that no longer exists. Human civilization is built on the assumption that the earth has a stable climate. “But we’re moving a long way from that,” Hayhoe continued. “This will be bigger than anything we’ve ever seen in the past. It will be unprecedented. Every living thing will be affected,” Hayhoe said.

50 years after the Club of Rome report, such drastic warnings are still needed. And interested parties will again dismiss them as alarmist. The Swedish King Carl XVI. Gustaf spoke a simple truth at the opening of Stockholm 50: We don’t have another 50 years to reverse the trend. (…) If we want to limit global warming, then the next few years will be crucial.” Time is running out. The decision-makers are still looking for the gas pedal.

With material from DPA, AFP.