Two rivers are making the headlines at the same time: the Rhine and the Oder. The actually magnificent Rhine in the west has withered to a trickle due to persistent drought and great heat. The Oder in the east has become a stinking fish graveyard many kilometers long, for which the trigger is still being sought. So two very different cases?
On the acutely practical level, yes. But basically not. Basically, the situation on the Oder and also on the Rhine show how humans are destroying ecosystems. Be it through action or – as is also possible in the case of the Oder – through omission. What is happening on the Rhine can safely be seen as the result of climate change. This is mainly driven by the carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere, which have increased rapidly since industrialization and have become a global burden.
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As early as 1972, the prominent association of scientists, the Club of Rome, warned of the consequences for the environment of the economic growth that everyone was striving for. Admittedly, there was only a selective reaction – for example with the Rhine rehabilitation from the mid-1980s – and not systemically, so that the big changes could continue to take place in small steps.
There was plenty of room to overlook or reinterpret them. It was only much later that people opened their eyes. Now that climate change is possibly unstoppable, but its consequences have also reached the industrialized areas of the world. Only now is the prevention of escalation an important goal.
The disaster in the Oder follows a similar pattern, but in fast motion. Dead fish in the river were observed, Polish authorities noticed, but didn’t react, hoping instead that things wouldn’t get too bad and would take care of themselves. Consequence: the dying spread to other animal species, affected the people bordering the river and other countries.
And only now is there alarm left and right of the Oder, looking for the culprits, offering rewards for information and talking about ecological crimes. Rightly so, because there are only two explanations: It could, which is likely, that toxins were illegally introduced into the river and led to the death of fish. Or – very unlikely – the river has tilted without direct human intervention, possibly as a result of contaminated sites. In that case, a worsening of the situation would not have been prevented.
Within weeks, what was happening on a small scale on the Oder in the matter of climate change was happening for decades on the big stage: grievances were pointed out, problems downplayed, long-term consequences ignored.
However, a concrete cause may never be found for the fish die-off in the Oder. Because the critical moment was too long ago, or because synthetic organic substances are generally becoming more and more difficult to identify, or because water monitoring is not planned or does not work. But either way, man will have contributed his part to the catastrophe.
And if one is willing to speak of an ecological crime in the case of the Oder, isn’t the term also correct for climate change, when it is now clear – unlike 150 years ago – that the ongoing greenhouse gas emissions are destroying the environment?
There are initiatives that classify environmental destruction as a crime and want to bring it before the International Court of Justice in The Hague as ecocide. France recently made willful air, soil or water pollution a punishable offense. Those convicted face imprisonment and fines of up to 4.5 million euros. It doesn’t save a fish or stop climate change, but it’s not completely worthless either. It determines what is important. Nature has not been part of it for far too long.