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”

“Cascading biases against poorer countries” (A response to du Pont et. al. in Nature Climate Change)

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This is a quick notice of a brief “correspondence” piece, just published in Nature Climate Change.

Cascading biases against poorer countries (see the sharable link at https://rdcu.be/MMbA) was written by an ad-hoc group of analysts and philosophers who got together in 2017 to respond to Equitable mitigation to achieve the Paris Agreement goals (the sharable link is https://t.co/vXFWgLDBOV), which du Pont et. al. published in December of 2016 in Nature Climate Change.

Our published response to du Pont et. al., Cascading biases against poorer countries, is quite short, but we think it manages to make its core points.  In a nutshell, our claim in that du Pont and his colleagues reach counter-intuitive conclusions (for example that the EU has made a more “equitable” pledge than either China or India) by way of a cascading series of decisions that, taken together, skew their approach towards various kinds of grandfathering, while, at the same time, appearing to be derived from a balanced and comprehensive set of high-level equity principles.

With the euphoria of the Paris breakthrough now in the rear-view mirror, and attention shifting to post-Paris action plans, it’s worth noting that all sorts of pledges – national NDCs, regional emissions caps, even the energy roadmaps of individual corporations – are being advertised as being “Paris compliant.”

In this context, with first-cut stocktake processes spinning up, remember that Paris lays out a “pledge and review” regime, and that the second term in this phrase must be taken as seriously as the first.  There will, in particular, be no real ambition ratchet without real equity assessment.  It won’t be easy to agree on a proper assessment process, but open dialog will certainly help.  What else possibly could?

Paris’s Article 14, which lays out the terms of reference for the all-important Global Stocktake process, is quite explicit.  This stocktake will be conducted “in a comprehensive and facilitative manner, considering mitigation, adaptation and the means of implementation and support, and in the light of equity and the best available science.”

What does this imply?  What does it even mean?  What, in particular, does it mean for the assessment of individual national pledges?

Hopefully, the debate will quickly evolve, and hopefully, too, it will henceforth be productive and illuminating.  To that end, disagreements should be respectful, but they should also be clear.  Transparency is critical, particularly if the “equity and ambition” debate is to be comprehensible to new people.   And we should all remember that none of us knows how to best engage the equity challenge.

Moving forward with the equity debate, some heat is inevitable.  But our goal should be to cast light.

“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.”

Equity is the Missing Key for Climate Roadmaps

In March of 2017, Johan Rockström, the author of Big World, Small Planet: Abundance within Planetary Boundaries, along with a extremely high-tone list of co-authors, published A roadmap for rapid decarbonization in Science.  In it they propose a “roadmap” of escalating actions from now until 2050, designed to keep the average global temperature change under 2° Celsius, with some chance of limiting it to 1.5°C.

It’s an important piece, and its bottom line, as scientist and critic Kevin Anderson put it, is that the Rockström et. al. have “upped the ante.” In particular, they have translated carbon-budget science into a specific, decade-by-decade plan for a greatly accelerated global technological transition, driving net global CO2 emissions down to a near-zero level in 2050 – a mere 33 years. This type of planning is crucial as policy makers everywhere wrestle with the immense challenges of meeting the collective goals they agreed to in the Paris Agreement. However, a key element is missing from Rockström’s roadmap: equity.  More specifically, they have nothing to say about the fair sharing of climate action among countries. The bottom line here is that we can’t hope to succeed unless this challenge, too, is taken up, so its omission from Rockström’s paper is unfortunate.

Kelly Stone, a senior policy analyst at Action Aid USA, and I replied in the Huffington Post, in a piece called Equity is the Missing Key for Climate Roadmaps.  Among other things, we said that:

“Morally, there’s no question that developed countries must take the lead, and also assist the poor in the extremely challenging decades that lie ahead. Developed countries including the United States have been emitting far more carbon for far longer than developing countries, and they are, moreover, the homes of most of the world’s wealthy. The top-line message here could not be more clear, for the richest 10% of the world’s people produce half of Earth’s fossil-fuel emissions, while the poorest half contribute a mere 10%. This is the essential background without which it’s impossible to understand the position today, in which we’ve used up essentially the entire global carbon budget, and, to note the sharpest part of the challenge, developing countries face an urgent need to leapfrog to renewable energy even as many of their citizens still lack basic energy access, let alone proper health and education systems. Even worse, people in the global south – especially the poorest – are already feeling the impacts of climate crises they did nothing to create. Asking them to take to a roadmap that makes no provision for such facts is simply wrong.

Nor is climate equity just a moral challenge. There are strong instrumental reasons to believe that, unless we put the equity challenge front and center, there’s little hope of following any road as difficult as the one that Rockstrom and his co-authors have laid out. The bottom line here is that, given the emergency situation we’re now facing, developing countries must mobilize on a scale that far overwhelms their capacity to act alone, and they must do so even as rising climate impacts force them to prioritize adaptation. They cannot possibly meet these challenges without support from developed countries, and even in the short term it’s difficult for them to lay the necessary plans without some modicum of confidence that such support will be forthcoming.”

Implications for Australia of a 1.5°C future

Slowly but surely, the “fair shares” issue is taking the stage. It has to if we’re going to get anywhere near the Paris temperature targets, which I will conservatively characterize as “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.” Which brings me to Implications for Australia of a 1.5°C future, which my colleague Sivan Kartha just wrote for a few brave Australian climate groups.

bridgeIt’s an interesting report, for two related reasons. First, it is brief, and it sticks very closely to the mainline implications of the carbon budget approach, laying out the logic of the high-ambition Paris targets in a clear, step by step, fashion. Second, it is conservative. Not only does it reference the Australian fair share, as calculated by the Climate Equity Reference Project for the Civil Society Equity Review of the INDCs, but it also references a far more forgiving estimate of Australia’s fair share, one calculated by the Australian Climate Change Authority in 2014.

The report’s headline result, which the Sydney Morning Herald gave as Australia’s carbon budget to be exhausted in six years, is an understated one. If, that is, you actually want to meet the Paris targets, which is to say, if you actually want to reduce the risk of an utter catastrophe in which, to quote a recent paper by Jim Hansen and colleagues, the “Social disruption and economic consequences” arising from “large sea level rise, and the attendant increases in storms and climate extremes,” that trigger “conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse” that are so severe that they could even “make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.”

Not that Australia is going to drop its emissions to zero in six years. This isn’t in the cards and we all know it. But it should do its level best, and support a great deal of offshore mitigation as well. This, in any case, is what it would mean for it to do its fair share.