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.”

Continue reading “Piketty (and Chancel) on Climate Equity”

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”

Countdown: Our last, best hope for a future on Earth?

(An shorter version of this review was published in Earth Island Journal in the Spring of 2014)

 

COUNTDOWN: Our last, best hope for a future on Earth?
Alan Weisman
Little Brown, 2013, 513 pages
 

During his recent book tour, writer Alan Weisman told me that Paul Ehrlich, he of The Population Bomb, said that “Countdown is the best book on population written in decades.” It’s a nice line, and a considered judgment (see Ehrlich’s own review), and I have no reason to dispute it. Countdown is a good book and a fine read. It crosses dangerous ground, and while it stumbles, it does not fall. If it’s read closely and fairly — a big if these days — it will be helpful.

Before I go any further, a disclaimer: I’ve known Weisman for some time, and count him a friend. But Countdown is a population book, and I hate Malthusianism. They’re not the same thing, of course, but I still hesitated before reviewing it.

First up, what’s this “Malthusianism,” and why is it hateful? Well, Malthusianism is a specifically biological kind of reductionism, one that buttresses right-wing pessimism and policy conclusions, and one that not at all incidentally pushes social justice off the political agenda. It does this by telling a tale in which we humans are simply animals, and are fated by our natures to fill our niche to overflowing. But this just isn’t true. We’re animals, sure, but we live in history as well as nature, and as Marx pointed out long ago, we make our own history, or at least we try to. It’s never been easy, and it only gets harder when we pretend that exponential breeding is the fundamental reason that things are getting away from us.

Is Weisman, then, a Malthusian? No, he is not. He gets close, but he doesn’t drink the cool aid.

Continue reading “Countdown: Our last, best hope for a future on Earth?”

News Flash: Money makes you selfish!

I know it’s hard to believe, but watch Exploring the Psychology of Wealth, ‘Pernicious’ Effects of Economic Inequality. It’s a brief report by the PBS Newshour’s Paul Solman, no raving leftie he, and it’s worth even waiting out the leading advert from . . . Goldman Sachs!

The research being reported here is by UC Berkeley psychologists Dacher Keltner and Paul Piff, and it’ll seem more than a bit familiar to anyone who’s read The Spirit Level.  That said, this is a tidy, amusing, and convincing take on the corrosion that is economic stratification.

The report begins with the fact that the drivers of luxury cars are “anywhere from three or four times” more likely to cut off pedestrians that people driving less expensive cars, and goes on to observe that rich people steal more candy in fake psychological tests, and are more likely to cheat in a game of chance, lie during negotiations, endorse unethical behavior, or steal at work.

Watch this spot, if only for the story of the rigged Monopoly game.  The one in which the “person assigned the role of rich person” gets to roll an extra time. . .

“we found consistently with people who were the rich players that they actually started to become, in their behavior, as if they were like rich people in real life. They were more likely to eat from a bowl of pretzels that we positioned off to the side. They ate with their mouths full, so they were a little ruder in their behavior to the other person.”

And just the opposite too:

“If I take someone who is rich and make them feel psychologically a little less well-off, they become way more generous, way more charitable, way more likely to offer help to another person.”

Maybe that’s the bright side?