Judging climate change like we do slavery

Dutch Slavers
Landing of Negroes at Jamestown from a Dutch Man-of-war, 1619. Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Recently, I saw this (Dutch) comic about climate change. It depicts two politicians with remarks made about climate change, but they replaced ‘climate change’ with ‘slavery’. The results are… disturbing.

Some Dutch History

The Dutch were once a world power. We founded New York (as New Amsterdam), we discovered Australia (if you disregard its indigenous people), and we were a big player in the transatlantic slave trade. During the two centuries of slave trade across the Atlantic, the Dutch transported some 600,000 slaves, 6% of the total.

Of course, behind those clinical number is the suffering of millions. Our government has expressed regret for this on several occasions, but a formal apology or financial recompense are apparently still a bridge too far.

So what does that have to do with climate change?

Dutch efforts against climate change

Let’s step to the side a bit, and look at Dutch efforts to curb climate change.

The Netherlands is one of the wealthiest countries in the EU, ranking fifth with regards to average income per capita, right after the US. Despite these riches, we’re at the bottom of the list when it comes to combating climate change in the EU.

Our politicians are always spinning this, and have been dragging their feet for a few decades now. The arguments are basically one of the following:

  • In 2009 we set ourselves an aggressive goal for 2020 of reducing emissions by 30%, but we’re only going to reach 17%. Instead of really pushing for that 2020 goal, we’re setting ourselves a new goal for 2030 and will start implementing that in a couple of years. Rinse and repeat.
  • We could do more to stop climate change, but we don’t think there’s popular support for that.
  • If we try to prevent climate change by taxing industry X for their contributions to it, they’ll just move to other countries and possibly make the problem worse.
  • Do you know how much preventing climate change will cost?
  • Even if climate change were real, then the costs would still be too high.

The Urgenda case

Now that would be that, except for a very interesting turn of events in 2013. The Urgenda foundation sued the government for not doing enough to combat climate change, which will directly harm the citizens its sworn to protect. There is enough scientific evidence to prove what the government is doing is harmful, after all.

Surprisingly, the court agreed. This made some headlines worldwide.

Of course, the government appealed, on principle. Can’t have the courts actually forcing you to do what you’ve promised over and over again. The current coalition in power also decided not to actually do anything to meet any climate goals, even if mandated by the courts and based on scientific evidence.

Then the unthinkable happened again. The appeals court agreed with the Urgenda foundation a second time.

Of course, the government appealed, again, on principle. And they’ve started to implement some measures, although the estimation is that the achieved reduction in 2020 will be as little as 17%, while the court mandated 25%. This is their final chance at appeal, though. Somewhere this year, the results will be in. 2020 is too close for action then, but it might help set the mood going forward.

Back to slavery

Let’s go back to the year 1814. There was a different set of Paris Accords back then. It was the treaty ending the Napoleontic wars. Interestingly, it also called slave trade repugnant and prohibited transatlantic slave trade. The Dutch signed those accords as well, and stuck to them. Of course, slavery as we Dutch practiced it inside our colonies was still thriving.

As a thought exercise, let’s replace ‘climate change’ in the Dutch government arguments noted above with the word ‘slavery’:

  • In 1804 we set ourselves an aggressive goal for 1815 of reducing the number of slaves by 30%, but we’re only going to reach 17%. Instead of really pushing for that 1815 goal, we’re setting ourselves a new goal for 1830 and start implementing that in a couple of years.
  • We could do more to stop slavery, but we don’t think there’s popular support for that.
  • If we try to abolish slavery by taxing industry X for their contributions to it, they’ll just move to other countries and possibly make the problem worse.
  • Do you know how much abolishing slavery will cost?
  • Even if slavery was really a problem, then the costs would still be too high.

Ouch. Looking at those, it’s hard to understand people could have gotten arguments like that across their lips.

Still, the Netherlands didn’t abolish slavery until 1863, so feet-dragging was par for the course back then as well.

The parallels

Now let me make this clear: I am not equating climate change to slavery. Both are terrible, but in very different ways. However, there are certain parallels.

If you look at slavery, it affected generations of people, predominantly dark-skinned ones. Even now, the effects of slavery can still be seen. Climate change will also effect generations of people: our own children, grandchildren, and their descendants down the line. The effects will affect us for many generations, if it doesn’t seal our fate permanently.

A second similarity is that it appears on the surface that it’s profitable. Of course, in the long run, our society is now booming without slavery, so it wasn’t that profitable. This also applies to climate change. It might seem that keeping all those fossil fuels going is the cheap option, but in the long run the costs for healthcare, water and food alone will far outpace any short term gains. Of course, short term costs are all that matter to people like Trump, who won’t be around when the real problems start, and who’s rich enough to not care anyway.

Thirdly, the deaths are far away — if you were not a slave, that is. Some people seem to think the same now. ‘Oh, we live far enough north we’ll just have nicer summers, who gives a hoot about people far away or somebody else’s children’. Well guess what, the people affected haven’t been born yet, but they will be people. And sorry to say, it will affect everybody when the diseases migrate north and the water and food run out everywhere.

Fourthly, while the Netherlands has always prided itself on being open and free, we were the last of the West-European countries to abolish slavery. Similarly, we now like to pretend we’re a very green and climate-aware country, while we’re at the bottom of the European list in regards to combating climate change.

And finally, the continuation and abolishment of slavery was made part of political narratives about other things. The bible was used to justify it, and the protestants grabbed hold of abolishment as a stick to beat the catholics with. And look at that, the climate crisis and everything around it is warped to fit other political narratives Today. The alt-right and similar populist movement try to paint climate scientists and green industry as one of the enemies of ‘the people’, whose conspiracy to extort money from hard-working folk must be stopped. This to distract from the fact that they would love to return to the time of slavery, when some people were more equal than others.

In short

We’re at the brink of a global catastrophe, and politicians are debating about things like ‘cost effectiveness’ and ‘popular support’.

Future generations will judge us for the decisions we make, and if you look at how we judge our own ancestors of the early nineteenth century, it won’t be a pretty hindsight. If there are any humans left at all, that is.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands