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.”

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.

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Confronting Climate Change in a Deeply Unequal World

The folks at inequality.org 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.

Building Just Climate Futures Together – an online conference

If you’re in the mood for a half hour of of me, along in my room talking into a microphone, and you’d like to see a sketch of the book I have under development (it’s called Fair Enough?), you might want to take a look at this video, which was (is?) my contribution to an online climate conference organized by John Foran at UC Santa Barbara’s Environmental Humanities Initiative.

The conference is called  ACTIVISTS, ARTISTS, AND ACADEMICS: BUILDING JUST CLIMATE FUTURES TOGETHER and my contribution, which I called “Climate Justice as Climate Realism,” is part of a panel called “The Global Climate Justice Movement in the Age of Crisis.

This “nearly carbon-neutral” conference is entirely online.  It’s a format that has its charms, not the least of which is that it could be international without involving air-travel.  But I must confess that I missed the usual drinks party.  You know, actually meeting people and talking.  In the flesh.

“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:

Piketty (and Chancel) on Climate Equity

Remember Thomas Piketty, recently famous for a book named Capital in the Twenty-First Century? Well the very same Thomas Piketty (Paris School of Economics), together with Lucas Chancel (IDDRI, Paris School of Economics) has just published a paper called Trends in the global inequality of carbon emissions (1998-2013) & prospects for an equitable adaptation fund. And a fascinating paper it is!

Trends in the global inequality of carbon emissions is a call for a global progressive carbon consumption tax (with a 0% marginal rate for those below a key threshold) that is designed to provide $150 billion a year for the global adaptation fund (a key climate fund that, while formally established, is woefully underfunded).

The crucial thing here is that Chancel / Piketty explicitly seek a globally progressive tax on individuals rather than countries. They do this for a number of reasons, but first among them is the judgement that inequality between people has (since 2013) become a greater source of emissions inequity than inequality between countries:

“Our estimates also show that within-country inequality in CO2e emissions matters more and more to explain the global dispersion of CO2e emissions. In 1998, one third of global CO2e emissions inequality was accounted for by inequality within countries. Today, within-country inequality makes up 50% of the global dispersion of CO2e emissions. It is then crucial to focus on high individual emitters rather than high emitting countries.”

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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.

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