Jason Hickel on the “New Optimists”

I don’t know who Jason Hickel is, but I’m in danger of becoming a fan of his. His recent piece, Progress and its Discontents, which was published in New Internationalist in early August, has made the danger acute. Just for starters, it’s an excellent, and data-heavy, critique of Stephen Pinker’s infuriating apologia for today extreme inequality. But it goes far beyond this to show how Pinker and his pal Bill Gates torture the poverty stats in order to support a “New Optimism” that obscures just how terrible the global inequality crisis really is.

Just one quote:

“Consider this rather strange paradox. The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) says that there are 815 million people in the world today who do not have access to enough calories to sustain even ‘minimal’ human activity; some 1.5 billion are food insecure and cannot get enough calories to sustain ‘normal’ human activity; malnutrition is suffered by 2.1 billion. And the FAO says that these numbers are rising. In other words, the $1.90 [poverty] line peddled by Gates and Pinker would have us believe that there are fewer poor people than hungry and malnourished people, and that the number of poor is decreasing even while the number of hungry is rising. “

I can’t recommend this piece too highly, and this despite the fact that it doesn’t have anything to say about the climate crisis.

Stefan Ramsdorf has a point

Stefan Rahmstorf is a top-tier climatologist and a great explainer, so I found it notable when, in a recent post in RealClimate (How much CO2 your country can still emit, in three simple steps), he took a few baby steps into the fraught territory of global effort sharing.

His three simple steps are:

  • Pick a global temperature goal (like, say, 1.5°C)
  • Pick a global CO2 budget (which involves some thinking about uncertainty)
  • Pick a method for divided up the (very small) remaining budget between nations

I’m not writing to make a comment on Ramsdorf’s first two steps, which are explained clearly and astutely. Though I do commend his discussion of uncertainties, and I worry that he may be a bit too diligently optimistic when it cones to Earth system feedbacks .

And I do like his caution to think in terms of budgets rather than end dates, as per:

“This is why one should not attach much value to politicians setting targets like “zero emissions in 2050”. It is immediate actions for fast reductions which count, such as actually halving emissions by 2030. Many politicians either do not understand this – or they do not want to understand this, because it is so much simpler to promise things for the distant future rather than to act now. “

I’m writing rather to note Ramsdorf’s comment on effort sharing, which manages to be both naive and helpful at the same time. Naive because, once he has made the key point, that “dividing up the remaining budget” is a matter of climate justice, not one of climate science, he chooses to do this division in terms of equal rights to emit C02, which isn’t actually, in this highly stratified world of ours, very just at all.

Why this move? Because he wants to argue that “a principle of fair distribution needs to be universal and simple.” Which per-capita emissions rights certainly are, in contrast to actual justice, which would have to consider not just equality, but also capability (which means wealth) and responsibility (which means facing history).

Why then judge this oversimple analysis helpful? Because Ramsdorf’s bottom line is that “we have to reduce emissions very very fast in the developed world, no matter how you twist and turn it.” (See the comments). And because he adds that there will have to be “a longer tail of emissions from developing nations reaching zero later.”

Both of these conditions, at this late date, are going to be almost incomprehensibly difficult to satisfy. Still, there they are. And if we have to speak very very simply in order to make them understandable, there’s an argument to be made for doing so, even if it violates the prime directive: “as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

The State of the Climate Movement

Recently, the Great Transition Initiative ran an extended online debate which it called The Climate Movement: What’s Next? Participants were asked to give special attention to three questions:

What is the climate movement’s state of play?
What has worked, and where has the movement fallen short?

System change, not climate change?
Does defusing the crisis require deep structural and value changes, or can “green capitalism” get us there?

Do we need a meta-movement?
Does the climate movement need to build overarching alliances with environmental, peace, and justice movements?

Bill McKibben started the debate rolling with this fine piece. My contribution, which I called Globalizing the Movement, is here, and also below. You can find all of the featured contributions at the debate page here.

Continue reading “The State of the Climate Movement”

Global Inequality in the Time of Climate Emergency

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

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.

Continue reading “Global Inequality in the Time of Climate Emergency”

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. . .