“The Case for Climate Reparations”

Climate politics can be brutally difficult. You have to tell the truth, for one thing, but if that’s all you do, you lose. The real trick is telling the truth in a helpful manner, one that opens doors. So kudos to Jason Mark, the Editor-in-Chief of Sierra Magazine, who pulls this off nicely in The Case for Climate Reparations, the cover story of the current issue.

The subtitle, “It’s Time the Carbon Barons Paid the Costs for our Unnatural Disasters,” signals the secret of Mark’s success. He’s asking for something real, but he’s not asking for the world. This is the Transitional Justice way. Reparations are just one tool in the toolkit, one device among many. The real challenge is to face history, and to do so in a meaningful way that makes it possible to then move forward.

That said, reparations are a very special device, for they go beyond the recognition of past wrongs to demand paybacks for historical debts. In South Africa, after Apartheid, these are the debts owed by colonizers to their former subjects. Today, in the United States, on the reparations for slavery front, they are the living legacy of the Confederacy, and of “reconstruction” and its cruelties, and of “the new Jim Crow.” (For more on these themes, see The Case for Reparations, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.)

But, again, Mark is making a measured case. He’s not even naming the great challenge of “differentiated responsibilities” a phrase from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that, overplayed in decades of often bitter negotiations, has left the realists terrified of equity in any form. Quiet conveniently terrified, actually. He’s just talking about the fossil corporates, his “carbon barons,” and suggesting that it’s their time on the block, their time to face history.

The Sierra Club should be congratulated for this piece. I hope they don’t have to put up with too much carping for running it.  Because the truth is that, unlike the challenge of mitigation — which can to some degree be met with technology, and market mechanisms, and policy reforms — the challenges of adaptation and loss & damage are absolutely going to elude the devices of politics as usual. When the waters rise in earnest, and they will, when the deserts spread and intensify, and they will, the question of responsibility is going to hang heavy in the air.

In fact, it already does. And facing it in a helpful way is going to be hard. But, hey, we gotta start somewhere. Why not with the fact the Exxon lied?

Oil Change International on the IEA Scenarios

Oil Change International, the very model of an activist climate think tank, has released an excellent critique of the International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) climate scenarios.   It’s called Off Track: The IEA and Climate Change, and it’s well worth your time.  Also note that the principle author of the report, Greg Muttitt, has recorded a concise webinar version of the report which is archived here.

This is pretty technical stuff, but if given that the IEA’s New Policy Scenario is one of the most influential climate / energy projections in all the world, and given that it is massively inconsistent with the Paris temperature goals, it’s also pretty important.

Just one specific point.  The IEA not only has its New Policy Scenario, it also has its so-called Sustainable Development Scenario, and even this latter scenario is nowhere close to being consistent with the Paris temperature goals.  Moreover, the IEA’s conception of this more stringent scenario is nowhere close to being equitable.

This graphic, from the Oil Change report, makes this clear.  It shows that, in the IEA’s view, the bulk of the reductions that need to be made if we’re to increase ambition from the from the New Policy level to the Sustainable Development level, should be made in the developing countries.

If this is what passes for realism in the IEA, we’ve really got a problem.

Kevin Anderson Speaks

It’s two years now since Paris, and time for another dose of Kevin Anderson, straight-shooter extraordinaire.  You can get it by watching this talk, given at Anderson’s home base at  the University of Manchester.  The talk begins at time-code 11:00 and runs until about 42:20.   There’s a lot more to say, but Anderson fits a lot into those 31 minutes.  My only quibble is with his explanation of why the political elites behind the Paris Agreement were so eager to celebrate it, which I find to be painfully thin.   But the mainline of talk is great, as far as it goes, and that’s pretty far, actually.  Here’s a sample slide:

“The best way to reduce your personal carbon emissions: don’t be rich”

Great post by Dave Roberts on VOX, here.  It’s nominally a response to the “not having a kid is the best way to reduce your carbon footprint” argument, which Roberts debunks by reminding us that carbon emissions are class stratified, all the way down. He does so quoting Oxfam’s top-notch inequality research, including this graph:

How to interpret this?  Like so:

“This shows that the top 10 percent of the wealthiest people in China emit less carbon per person than people on the bottom half of the US wealth distribution — again, inequality between countries — but it also shows that the top 10 percent wealthiest in the US emit more than five times as much CO2 per person as those on the lower half of the income scale.

So wealthy people in the US produce 10 times more per capita emissions than the wealthy in China. That is pretty mind-boggling.

The point here is that not all individual choices are created equal, because not all individuals are equally capable of having an impact. The choices of developed-world citizens matter more than the choices of (say) Chinese citizens, and the choices of wealthy developed-world citizens matter most of all.

The rich, in other words, are the ones that should be getting hassled about their choices. For most working schmoes, this kind of moralizing of lifestyle is as pointless as it is off-putting.”

Oxfam’s Extreme Carbon Inequality report

I’ve recently heard a few references to this crucial report, which was published back in the happy days (late 2015) when the big climate news wasn’t Don Trump but rather the Paris Agreement.  It’s so important (and I’m so embarrassed at not having cited it at the time) that I’m going to do so now, a  year and a half later.

The full name of the report is Extreme Carbon Inequality: Why the Paris climate deal must put the poorest, lowest emitting and most vulnerable people first.  Here are the key paras from the summary:

“Strikingly, our estimates of the scale of this inequality suggest that the poorest half of the global population – around 3.5 billion people – are responsible for only around 10% of total global emissions attributed to individual consumption, 1 yet live overwhelmingly in the countries most vulnerable to climate change.

Around 50% of these emissions meanwhile can be attributed to the richest 10% of people around the world, who have average carbon footprints 11 times as high as the poorest half of the population, and 60 times as high as the poorest 10%. The average footprint of the richest 1% of people globally could be 175 times that of the poorest 10%.”

The Guardian published a nice summary here.  And here’s the picture:

Managed Decline: Why the new Oil Change report is even better than you thought

The new report from Oil Change International (Greg Muttitt was the principle author) is a major event. It’s called The Sky’s Limit: Why the Paris climate goals require a managed decline of fossil fuel production and it has garnered quite a bit of praise from the greenie press. (See for example, hereherehere and here.) It deserves the praise, and it also deserves a closer reading.

There are two especially notable comments on the report, Bill McKibben’s Recalculating the Climate Math and George Monbiot’s What Lies Beneath. The first because it very clearly explains why we must immediately stop investing in fossil infrastructure (and it was McKibben who in 2012, with his blockbuster Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, first drew the political implications of “the carbon budget approach” out into the public discussion). The second because it displays all the virtues of Monbiot’s usual bitter realism, and because it’s marred by a small but instructive overstatement, one to which I will return.

The core argument

In the report’s core, OCI draws out a new and critical implication of the carbon budget approach. It does so by going beyond the now classic Carbon Tracker analysis (the foundation of McKibben’s 2012 article), updating it by focusing not on the entire body of fossil-fuel reserves, but on the smaller set (roughly 30% of the “proven” reserves) of reserves that have already been “developed” – the “oil fields, gas fields, and coal mines that are already in operation or under construction.” By so doing, OCI is able to harness the vast power of what some wag, somewhere, once called “the first law of holes” — when you’re in one, stop digging.

Here are the report’s headline conclusions:

* The potential carbon emissions from the oil, gas, and coal in the world’s currently operating fields and mines would take us beyond 2°C of warming.

* The reserves in currently operating oil and gas fields alone, even with no coal, would take the world beyond 1.5°C.

* With the necessary decline in production over the coming decades to meet climate goals, clean energy can be scaled up at a corresponding pace, expanding the total number of energy jobs.

Continue reading “Managed Decline: Why the new Oil Change report is even better than you thought”

Laudato Si’

51. Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true “ecological debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time. The export of raw materials to satisfy markets in the industrialized north has caused harm locally, as for example in mercury pollution in gold mining or sulphur dioxide pollution in copper mining. There is a pressing need to calculate the use of environmental space throughout the world for depositing gas residues which have been accumulating for two centuries and have created a situation which currently affects all the countries of the world. The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming. There is also the damage caused by the export of solid waste and toxic liquids to developing countries, and by the pollution produced by companies which operate in less developed countries in ways they could never do at home, in the countries in which they raise their capital: “We note that often the businesses which operate this way are multinationals. They do here what they would never do in developed countries or the so-called first world. Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable”.

Continue reading “Laudato Si’”

Richest 1% will own more than all the rest by 2016

Wealth: Having it all and wanting more, a recent report from Oxfam International, is a milestone on the road to blunt realism.  To wit:

Global wealth is becoming increasing concentrated among a small wealthy elite. Data from Credit Suisse shows that since 2010, the richest 1% of adults in the world have been increasing their share of total global wealth.

In 2014, the richest 1% of people in the world owned 48% of global wealth, leaving just 52% to be shared between the other 99% of adults on the planet. Almost all of that 52% is owned by those included in the richest 20%, leaving just 5.5% for the remaining 80% of people in the world. If this trend continues of an increasing wealth share to the richest, the top 1% will have more wealth than the remaining 99% of people in just two years, as shown in the figure below, with the wealth share of the top 1% exceeding 50% by 2016.

Share of global wealth of the top 1% and bottom 99% respectively; the dashed lines project the 2010–2014 trend. By 2016, the top 1% will have more than 50% of total global wealth.

What to do? Oxfam makes the following suggestions:

Clamp down on tax dodging by corporations and rich individuals

Invest in universal, free public services such as health and education

Share the tax burden fairly, shifting taxation from labour and consumption towards    capital and wealth

Introduce minimum wages and move towards a living wage for all workers

Introduce equal pay legislation and promote economic policies to give women a fair deal

Ensure adequate safety-nets for the poorest, including a minimum income guarantee

Agree a global goal to tackle inequality

Would it be enough?  Nope.  Would it be a start?  Yep.  Have we got a chance of stabilizing the climate system (let alone the ecosystem) if we don’t think at least this big?   Nope.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

This review of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate was first published in the Earth Island Journal, here.  See this notice on Klein’s own site. 

The first thing to say about Naomi’s Klein’s latest book is that its title makes a grand promise — This Changes Everything – and that’s before you even get to the subtitle, which sets up a face-off between capitalism on one side and the climate on the other. The second thing to say is that no single book could ever meet such a promise. Klein, with careful aplomb, does not attempt to do so. Rather, she offers a tour of the horizon upon which we will meet our fates. Or, rather, the horizon upon which we will attempt to change them.

book cover thumbnail

In the face of such huge topics, Klein’s strategy is a practical one. She defers the problem of capitalism-in-itself (as German philosophers used to call it) and focuses instead on our era’s particular type of capitalism – the neoliberal capitalism of boundless privatization and deregulation, of markets-über-alles ideology and oligarchic billionaires. Her central argument is not (as some have insisted) that capitalism has to go before we can begin to save ourselves, but rather that we’re going to have to get past neoliberalism if we want to face the greater challenges. Klein writes:

Some say there is no time for this transformation; the crisis is too pressing and the clock is ticking. I agree that it would be reckless to claim that the only solution to this crisis is to revolutionize our economy and revamp our worldview from the bottom up – and anything short of that is not worth doing. There are all kinds of measures that would lower emissions substantively that could and should be done right now. But we aren’t taking those measures, are we?

At the outset Klein asks the obvious question: Why haven’t we, in the face of existential danger, mobilized to lower emissions? There are lots of reasons, but one stands above all others. We have not mobilized because “market fundamentalism has, from the very first moments, systematically sabotaged our collective response to climate change, a threat that came knocking just as this ideology was reaching its zenith.” In other words the climate crisis came with spectacularly “bad timing.” The severity of the danger became clear at the very time when “there-is-no-alternative” capitalism was rising to ideological triumph, foreclosing the exact remedies (long-term planning, stricter government regulation, collective action) that could address the crisis. It’s a crucial insight, and it alone justifies the price of admission.

Continue reading “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate”

Carbon Majors Funding Loss and Damage

Ready for a stimulating new cut across some old territory?  Think about “responsibility,” and take a look at Carbon Majors Funding Loss and Damage, a discussion paper by Julie-Anne Richards and Keely Boom of the Climate Justice Project — “an independent not for profit, non-government organisation that uses the law to expose environmental and human rights issues relating to climate change.”

Among other things, the analysis here includes the idea of corporate — rather than national — historical responsibility.  In fact, it shows “that a small number – fewer than 100 – entities have a significant responsibility for the climate change currently being experienced.”  More generally, it’s based on the idea that private entities that have profited from, and continue to profit from, the fossil-fuel economy should be responsible for a good fraction of the “loss and damage costs” associated with carbon pollution.

This is a ground breaking idea, and it deserves a lot more attention, in this our unfortunate age of corporate personhood.  “Persons,” after all, have responsibilities as well as rights.