Global Inequality in the Time of Climate Emergency

For a cool graphic (but fewer words) see the version of this essay at

Something has changed.  I’ve been asking people in the climate movement what they think it is, and most everyone agrees.  When did it happen?  After the Paris Agreement, definitely.  But also after Brexit, and after Trump’s election, which put “the emergency” on the map for all to see.  There are lots of data points. In late 2017, David Wallace-Well’s piece in New York Magazine, The Uninhabitable Earth, landed like a bomb.  In mid-2018 came the Deep Adaptation paper, which likewise was downloaded by the hundreds of thousands.  In October of 2018, there came the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5°C, and afterwards the air was crisper, the view clearer.  It was obvious that climate denialism, or at least classic climate denialism, had lost its legitimacy.  Denialism was just a right-wing scam, and everyone knew it.  And, of course, there were the storms, and the firestorms, and then the Green New Deal resolution, which was a watershed by any reckoning.  To top it all off, there came the Extinction Rebellion, and its unforgettable new exhortations, protest signs that simply said “Tell the Truth!”

So something has changed.  But what’s at stake, exactly, and what comes next?  Wen Stephenson beat me to this (in a fine piece in The Nation) but I’ve reached exactly the same conclusion.  If we had to choose one voice, one single slogan, to represent the pivot that we’re now passing though, it would be hard to beat Czech playwright and ex-president Vaclav Havel and his notion of “living in truth.” [1]  It’s an option more people are exercising, people who are sick of the lies.  Even the comforting lies.

So where are we?  Three points are key.

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Climate Code Red – a must read scenario

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The Australian analysts at Climate Code Red are absolutely indispensable, as has been obvious since the 2017 publication of What Lies Beneath. But I’d like to draw special attention to Existential climate-related security risk: A Scenario approach, which they recently published under their new name, “Breakthrough,” which is absolutely not to be confused with the US-based “Breakthrough Institute.”

Seriously, don’t miss this report. It’s mercifully short, and its reference scenario is all too likely. Which is not at all good news. And while you’re at the Breakthrough site, take a look as well at Climate Emergency: What is safe, the 1.5º target, and is the end nigh?, wherein Breakthrough’s David Spratt explains the 1.5C target to an Australian Extinction Rebellion group.

David Spratt on 1.5C

David Spratt, the Australian hawk behind Climate Code Red, and now the Australian Breakthrough Institute, is very good on the science. And on what he calls the “emergency mode.” Not that going into “emergency mode” answer all questions about what must be done, or how to do it. But set that aside for the moment. If what you want is a summary of the science in which there are no punches pulled, watch this presentation, which David gave to a Australian Extinction Rebellion crew in May of 2019

A conversation cum debate between Rupert Read and Tom Athanasiou

Back in March, I debated Rupert Reed at the Center for European Studies at Berkeley. Rupert is a British Green politician and philosopher (a Wittgenstein expert, actually) who has recently emerged as a spokesman for the Extinction Rebellion. The debate is not uninteresting. In fact, it got quite rather testy at several points, as for example when I felt compelled to defend the IPCC against Rupert’s rather apocalyptic take on radicalism. Here’s the video. . .

Saudi version of climate justice rejected by developing countries

The drama was high in Katowice when a rotten bloc of four countries (the Saudis, of course, and also the U.S., the Russians and the Kuwaitis) refused to welcome the IPCC report.  But it wasn’t the drama that made the fight an important one.  It was that the Saudi’s argument. . .

“Saudi Arabia’s lead negotiator Ayman Shasly said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report – released in October – ‘shows that [halting warming at 1.5C] is achievable, it’s doable, let’s all do it together, which is not fair. What is the equity in this? Where is history in this?’ ”

. . . has definitely passed its use by date.  Read more here.

Confronting Climate Change in a Deeply Unequal World

The folks at recently released this nice brisk introduction to the climate inequality emergency.  It’s a nice intro to the subject, which I cite because it takes inequality and climate crisis as two crises that can no longer be successfully addressed in isolation from each other.   The strategy of the piece is to juxtapose the IPCC’s new special report on Global Warming of 1.5°C and Oxfam’s The Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index 2018. The first of these, in particular, is a milestone document which has deservedly gotten a lot of attention, though few have noted that the IPCC itself has a lot to say about the equity challenge.  See the discussion of this in After Paris: Inequality, Fair Shares, and the Climate Emergency, which was just published by the Civil Society Equity Review coalition.