Perpetrators and Victims of Climate Change: “They Resemble a Group of Arguing Children”
Discussions on climate change often involve reflections on moral responsibility: who can be blamed for creating it and who can be held responsible for fixing it? All the books in our corpus provide a historical overview of climate change that explains how climates have always changed and how the rate at which climates have been changing in the last century indicates that we are currently in a different situation. All books also explain that there is a common consensus that human activity is affecting the environment negatively, but that certain scientists and politicians are skeptical about the gravity of these effects. Several books continue to explain that climate change is a large-scale problem that is the result of large social, political, and technological developments. The books point to such sources as industrialization, standardized food production, deforestation, and the steep increase in human population. An interesting case here is Ecohelden in actie. This book uses a Christian creationist narrative to explain the creation of the world, but goes on to argue that climate change is a result of human actions. In fact, this book brings the issue very close to home and asks the reader to reflect on their own contributions:
But even you pollute the water. You use soap to wash your hands and wash the dishes. You flush the toilet, you shower with plenty of soap, and every morning you put on clothes that are freshly washed by your mother. All that dirty used water needs to go somewhere.Footnote 10 (Klapwijk and Vos, 2010, p. 25)
The origin of climate change is largely presented in these books as the inevitable result of global developments that everyone contributes to in different degrees. The insistence that “even you” contribute to it, seems first and foremost to underline the idea that everyone contributes to large scale environmental problems. In this area, we find few contrasting techniques at work to differentiate between the ways in which diverse communities contribute to climate change and a mostly inclusive approach to understanding the sources of climate change. However, some indications of different contributions in some of the books. For example, Ecohelden in actie explains that: “Poor countries would like to pollute less, but do not have the money to do so. And rich countries sometimes do not want to pollute less because they value their own industry too much”Footnote 11 (Klapwijk and Vos, 2010, p. 18). This indicates that there is a difference in the choices made by “poor countries” and “rich countries” and consequently a different level of moral responsibility. Palmen op de Noordpool complicates this discussion further in a chapter called “Het is hun schuld” (“It is their fault”) that explores the different attempts to set up political solutions to climate change on a global scale. The chapter opens by explaining that different large-scale economies blame each other for being the main perpetrators of the problem:
They are like a group of arguing children. With a further 190 other children yelling from the sideline. ‘China is right!’ ‘Sure, but you also pollute too much, Russia!’ ‘OK, but you shouldn’t cut down so many trees, Brazil!’ ‘How about you first fix those factories.’ ‘But England started it all!’Footnote 12 (2018, p. 168)
The books usually note that these kinds of global conferences remain ineffective because some large countries (including China, India, and the United States) are not committed to the plans set out there. Overall, the books in our corpus portray the origins of climate change to be vastly complex and the specific culprits to be unidentifiable.
Considering the victims of climate change, we do see a sharp contrast in all of the books in our corpus. Klimaatverandering is perhaps the most upfront in its presentation of geo-economic hierarchies in the fight against climate change. Under the header “Arme landen” (“Poor countries”), the book discusses the effects of climate change today. Bangladesh is given a special position in this discussion because, much like the European part of the Netherlands, it is largely located below sea level. The text contrasts both countries by pointing out that:
Much like the Netherlands, Bangladesh is partly located below sea level. But they do not have enough money to build dykes over there. Lower parts of the country are already facing floods every other year. Especially poor people, who do not have money to protect themselves, are facing problems because of the high temperatures.Footnote 13 (Van Kolfschoten, 2009, p. 6)
The problems resulting from climate change are here directly connected to “poor countries” that are not able to fight this development. This notion is supported by images showing Bangladeshi people wading through water after a flood. Palmen op de Noordpool presents a similar narrative. In a chapter titled “Klaar voor de toekomst” (“Ready for the future”) the text explains that people from all over the world are requesting advice from Dutch engineers, because of their centuries long experience with reclaiming land that is located below sea level:
From all corners of the earth, architects, engineers and politicians come to the Netherlands to see how we are dealing with water. Half of the Netherlands is located below sea level, so we know how to keep our stuff dry. The visitors usually come from large cities such as New York, Jakarta, and Shanghai. They want to know what they can do to protect their citizens from storms and rising waters. Dutch companies are happy to show them around.Footnote 14 (2018, p. 134)
In these two stories we see the contrasting narrative that is presented about two countries that are both located below sea level: on the one hand, we have Bangladesh that is presented as victim due to a lack of resources and on the other hand we have the European part of the Netherlands that is presented as an expert and a leader in the fight against rising sea levels. This comparison obviously builds on a severely simplified depiction of both countries, that among other things ignores differences in financial wealth, population size, community involvement in environmental action, climatological conditions, and geographical features such as rivers and soil conditions.Footnote 15
Children Taking Action: “What Can You Do as an Eco-hero?”
When discussing possible solutions to climate change on a global level, children are not usually granted the agency to contribute significantly. It is, therefore, interesting to note that children are very much involved in the environmental project in most of these books. The only book in our corpus that does not even mention the possibility for children to participate in this project is Klimaatverandering. This book only describes large political projects that have been set up for this purpose, from which children are almost completely excluded. The agency in this book is exclusively accessible to adults, more specifically: to adult professionals that are involved in global politics. All other books, however, do include children in the fight against climate change. The books in our corpus indicate that action can be taken on different levels. Ecohelden in actie concretizes this idea by formulating three different levels. At the end of each chapter, the book asks “What can you do as an eco-hero?” (e.g. taking shorter showers), “What can the Netherlands do?” (e.g. reducing water waste in the agricultural sector), and finally “What can be done globally?” (e.g. collaboration through the Kyoto Protocol). As children are not usually allowed to participate in political debates on a national or international level, their agency in fighting climate change is largely directed to actions in the domestic sphere. In a chapter titled “Doe het zelf” (“Do it yourself”), Both Janouk zoekt een duurzame wereld and Palmen op de noordpool offer a long list of actions that children could take to combat climate change. These range from actions that are relatively easy for children to accomplish (e.g. take shorter showers) to actions that require assistance by adults (e.g. buy your clothes second-hand), to actions that are almost completely inaccessible to children (e.g. refrain from having children, or vote for a political party that takes climate change seriously). (Kelderman, 2020, pp. 56–61, pp. 97–101, pp. 134–135, pp. 166–170; Ter Horst, 2018, pp. 136–137). The tips from this latter category seem to prepare the child for a future life as an adult ecocitizen and perhaps enables them to encourage the adults in their lives to make these ecocritical decisions.
At the end of this chapter in Palmen op de noordpool, the book acknowledges that it would be difficult to do all of these things and encourages the reader to take it step-by-step and to not lose hope:
It might be a good idea to start small. Choose three things that are not too complicated and still effective. Eat less meat for example. Use a tablet. Shower less often. If you have got that down, add another one.Footnote 16 (Ter Horst, 2018, p. 137)
This sentiment is reiterated in the book’s epilogue, which states: “Don’t you go feeling guilty because you left a light on that one time, or because you ate a sausage roll or showered too long. It is no fun that way and you will not be able to keep it up”Footnote 17 (Ter Horst, 2018, p. 176). As such, the book takes seriously the likely limitations that the child has in living a more environmentally friendly lifestyle and helps the reader to find a realistic way in which they can still be included in the fight against climate change. Even though the child is thus explicitly included, they are not to be the main carriers of change here—this is still the role of adults still. The book also includes more lighthearted approaches to encouraging readers to engage with climate change in their day-to-day life, including a “klimaatbingo” (“climate bingo card”) in which children can mark off different climate change related events. These events range from close to home (e.g. your first vegetarian Christmas dinner) to global events (e.g. palm trees are growing on the North Pole). Even though these are mostly events that lie outside of the child’s control, the game translates these large-scale events into things that fit within their own world and gives children permission to think of them as being within their own realm.
Discourses of Collectivity: “Will You Accept the Challenge?”
Many of the books in our corpus provide information on what the child reader could contribute to the fight against climate change. These actions are usually small, everyday actions that are located in the immediate living environment of the child. Although many of these actions are individual activities, the books stress that they become effective when many people participate. As a result, we find a large emphasis on community building and collective efforts.
In several of the books in our corpus, the text acknowledges that the kinds of actions that are available to children might seem too marginal to be effective. In Ecohelden in actie we find the following question: “If there are that many people living on the planet, how can you and I make sure that the earth remains clean and beautiful? Isn’t that way too much for one person?”Footnote 18 (Klapwijk and Vos, 2010, p. 5) In doing this, the book acknowledges that the marginal position that children hold in this project might be frustrating and might even make the reader decide to not bother with it. However, the book explains that actual change only comes from collective action, undertaken by a large community of people, including children:
While you are reading this, you might think: can’t we do more things faster? It all seems like small, sometimes unimportant things. But when everyone helps out, we can achieve a lot together. Will you accept the challenge?Footnote 19 (Klapwijk and Vos, 2010, p. 19)
Through this assertion, the text stresses that the fight against climate change is a collaborative effort that requires participation on all ends and all levels. Palmen op de Noordpool demonstrates its own contribution by stating (twice) that this book is printed on environmentally friendly paper. The book Ecohelden in actie, opens with a chapter in which five Dutch public figures align themselves with the project of the book and encourage children to join the environmental project. (2010, pp. 6–7) Janouk zoekt een duurzame wereld includes short chapters throughout the book in which Dutch environmental celebrities discuss their own contributions to the fight against climate change.
In this second step of our analysis, we have found that most of the books in our corpus promote a complex, multifaceted story about the origin of climate change but present the direct victims of climate change as distanced from the child reader both in time and space. These victims are also presented mostly as passive and at the mercy of wealthy humans in the global north. The readers of these books are encouraged to envision themselves as a part of that community and are presented with many options to support the collective effort against climate change. The last step of our analysis explores the position that is reserved for nature in this project.