Agora Europe

Mathis Hampel is an Austrian climate geographer, science and technology researcher and universal basic income advocate. He runs the climate change blog in the daily newspaper Der Standard and publishes internationally on relevant topics. Since 2018, he has been heading the editorial office of the civil society association Generation Grundeinkomme.

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As an Austrian citizen, what is your perception of Europe?

In sports I cheer for Austria. Of course, I could question that but it wouldn’t help much. Recently, I’ve followed a couple of contests in which Europe is playing America and I could observe myself cheering for Europe, whether the contestant is French or Romanian or Austrian I don’t care. It’s interesting to see this European patriotism develop in me and I guess there should be more such competitions if one wants a European identity to grow in people’s hearts.

As a geographer, climatologist and scientist, what do you think of Europe’s role in the spectre of the climate crisis?

Europe has got CO2 targets for 2050. In all earnest, no one really cares about CO2 molecules. It’s the political, ethical and ideological meaning the molecules carry — are they luxury or poverty emissions, for example. Molecules may be the same chemically, but they have a “social” life. That’s what’s interesting to people and the ethical, political and ideological disagreements finally come to the fore. So, reducing emissions by 90% until 2050 is not a vision people’s hearts are at. Maybe their learned minds, but not their hearts. If politicians can translate the climate crisis into what people care for, argue and disagree about, the crisis can be a constructive one. Until now, they’re too much under the spell of CO2 the molecule.

You are also active in the movement for a guaranteed basic income.
Can you describe what it is and why it is important for you?

A basic income is a periodic cash payment unconditionally delivered to all on an individual basis, without means-test or job requirement. In welfare states we’ve already got a basic income, but we first have to proof that we’re poor bastards to get it. It’s called social benefits. It’s disgraceful, I’ve been there. Unconditionality requires no more than a change in mind-set. Nothing else.

Why is it important? 

Because it enables people to change. Enabling is the key word. And if you call for change, you’ve got to take the risk that it’s not the change you’ve hoped for. But if you don’t take the risk, nothing will ever change. Basic income is for risk takers. Not for paternalists. Funnily, paternalists typically don’t want to be paternalized themselves.

How would you describe the relationship of social issues and the climate crisis?

The climate crisis is a social issue, what else can it be. In fact, it’s the culmination of many different social issues, a clash of different “climate ideologies”. Some, maybe naively, believe in green growth, that’s their social issue: how to grow sustainably. Others claim that capitalism – the growth paradigm – is to blame, that climate change is a social class war. Many marches for climate justice, for wind&solar socialism, for indigenous rights. Others again believe that humans have sinned and fallen from grace, for them climate change is first and foremost about morality. Some eco-fundamentalists think that modern civilisation has gone totally astray, whether capitalist or socialist or whatever. The point about climate change is to create institutions which can handle these disagreements, because we will never all agree about climate change. Never.

What’s your view on the political or social tasks of scientists today?

In part, the scientist’s credibility and authority rests in their ability to negotiate the famed boundary between science and politics, the is and the ought. The idea is that they should not overstep it. Recently, a retired Austrian climatologist compared climate change to national socialism. “We all know“, she said, “and hardly anyone acts“. For many, she’s pushed it too far, she’s overstepped the boundary with this truly outrageous comparison. Clearly, she must have forgotten that our wealth, our comfort, even our democracy is strongly linked to fossil fuel extraction, in particular to coal. That’s not to justify coal but to say that there’s absolutely nothing we can thank the national socialist terror regime for. What helped her made that statement is the fact that she’s retired, she doesn’t have to play by the rules, she can cross the line more easily.

What is your view on the activism of young people nowadays, from Fridays For Future to Extinction Rebellion?

Some say Fridays for Future are neo-liberal puppets, others call them communists. So, they are doing something right. It will be interesting to see how well they manage to institutionalise. The Extinction Rebellion are more of the fundamentalist sort. I’ve got mixed feelings. My fear is that they, and calls for a climate emergency in general, pave the way for powerful nutters. “The apocalypse is the depressive’s megalomania“, says Matthias Horx and I think he’s got a point. Contrary to popular belief that we’ve only got “10 years left to act“, there’s no scientific reason to believe that the world is coming to an end. It’s a truism that fear is not the best political advisor.

Which strategies can help best to archive the results we need to battle the climate crisis, in your opinion?

Set short-term goals you can actually achieve. Work yourself up from there, celebrate success, then get more ambitious, celebrate again and so forth. But don’t start with a goal in the year 2100. That’s ludicrous. No business would do that, no organization would set such a goal. But with climate change we all too often forget to turn on our minds. There’s a lot of dogma. Also, don’t “think global” if it makes you depressive or if it provides you with an excuse not to make a change.

What impact can festivals have, making the climate crisis a topic in their discourse programme, like some of the festivals of the We Are Europe festival cooperation?

It’s always good to get together and discuss. Still, festivals typically attract like-minded people. When was the last time you’ve changed your mind on a quite fundamental issue? Maybe do something “crazy” and invite the political other and talk about visions of the future. Dare and see what happens.

What role can artists and musicians play in the context of the looming crisis?

There’s a warm and fuzzy feeling around the idea that we will all get together and agree on what to do. That art can bring us together for action. Artists could dismantle that belief and provoke disagreement which is always there – somewhere. Let’s not expect of arts that if A then B. It’s like basic research.

Any final words?

To speak with Kennedy, don’t ask what you can do for the climate, ask what climate change do for you. That’s what all clever businesses do. You may not like them, but you can copy the strategy.

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