Points of Comparison — Can we Afford a Fair Global Climate Transition?

 

“Anything we can actually do, we can afford”.

John Maynard Keynes

How to create the political backing for the international effort necessary to achieve a fair and rapid global climate transition, even though that support would be properly denominated not in billions of dollars but rather in trillions, or even as percentages of Gross World Product?

One eye-opening approach is to proceed by way of comparison – to show that the likely costs of the climate transition, great though they may be, are small when considered against the alternatives, and entirely affordable when considered against other, even larger expenditures, which we routinely accept as inevitable, even though they are often ill-conceived and sometimes criminally frivolous, and tend increasingly to be self-destructive on a monumental scale.

In a way, we all already know this, for we never tire of pointing out that the damage costs of inaction will far exceed the costs of any plausible mobilization. But other comparisons are also helpful, comparisons against the sums mobilized for other purposes, and also against the trillions that are wasted, on every front, when luxury consumption sets the terms by which expense is justified.

The good news here is that such comparisons are now routinely being made. Since the 2009 global financial crisis, and especially since the COVID pandemic, large governmental and inter-governmental financial interventions have, in the face of cascading emergencies, become almost routine. In both cases, very large numbers of people, and even significant fractions among the political elites, have been jolted into understanding that major mobilizations of public finance are sometimes absolutely, indisputably, necessary.

However, it’s still not possible to talk honestly and openly about the scale of the climate finance that’s actually necessary, or to keep the formal climate finance conversation from devolving into one in which private investment gets all the airtime. To be sure, there are many people who believe that transformational levels of public finance will be necessary to stabilize the climate system. But many of them also accommodate themselves to a policy world in which, so the thinking goes, the challenges of public finance can be safely set aside. In fact, public finance, and public planning and coordination more generally, will be absolutely necessary to the economy-wide transformations the climate crisis requires. Major debates remain before this point is so clearly established that it can no longer be reasonably contested, but at the same time, the conversation has clearly shifted. “Trillion is the new billion,” and this helps a great deal.

The key point here is that money is not the real problem. Keynes’ declaration made during World War II, “anything we can actually do, we can afford”, applies here as well. That said, the institutional and political challenges of providing the public finance and technology support necessary to achieve 1.5°C would be immense. The issues here sprawl, but I think it’s fair to say that Keynes would also have considered them to be entirely solvable. 

For the moment, here are a few useful points of comparison:

Environmentally destructive subsidies. Every day, governments spend massive amounts of money to subsidize the destruction of our world. How much money? If you count not only fossil subsidies but a variety of subsidies for environmentally destructive activities, across a range of sectors including agriculture, forestry, water management, and fisheries, activities leading not only to climate destabilization but also biodiversity loss, land degradation and global inequality, the latest expert estimate appears to lie north of $1.8 trillion a year, or about 2% of Gross World Product (GWP), all of which goes into directly supporting unsustainable production and consumption.

Of this $1.8 trillion, about $640 billion comes as explicit subsidies to the global fossil industry. Actual cash. But there’s more to this story, as far as fossil fuel subsidies are concerned, in part because some of it comes as consumption subsides designed to protect the poor (a fact the fossil cartel takes full advantage of, in its endless claims to be a great benefactor of humanity) and in part because there is another, truer way, to estimate fossil subsidies. This time it’s the IMF that has run the numbers, and despite criticism, stuck to its insistence that hidden damage costs must be counted as subsidies, and in 2020 calculated the real fossil subsidy was about $5.9 trillion, almost 7% of global GDP. Which comes to about $11 million a minute.

COVID Recovery spending. According to the International Energy Agency, pandemic recovery spending, as of October of 2021, had reached $16.9 trillion. Of that, about $2.3 trillion went into long-term investments, of which only about $470 billion was for clean energy and sustainable recovery – about 3% of the total. Much of this was a one-time outlay that will not be repeated, so it’s notable that fossil energy subsidies significantly outpaced clean energy subsidies. It’s also notable that the overall economic recovery was fantastically inequitable. According to the World Inequality Lab, the richest 1% of the global population have, since the beginning of the pandemic, captured 19 times more of global wealth growth than the whole of the bottom 50%. The extremity here is frankly amazing – Oxfam, in its Inequality Kills report, notes that “The increase in Bezos’ fortune alone during the pandemic could pay for everyone on earth to be safely vaccinated”.

Military spending. Military spending is the gold standard of wasted economic potential, so it’s notable that, in early 2021, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated the world military spending had risen to almost $2 trillion in 2020. And this figure is growing fast. The US military budget is the largest in the world (it recently came to about 40% of the global total) and“ according to a projection by the Congressional Budget Office, Congress is projected to spend about $8.5 trillion for the military over the next decade – about half a trillion more than is budgeted for all nonmilitary discretionary programs combined (a category that includes federal spending on education, public health, scientific research, infrastructure, national parks and forests, environmental protection, law enforcement, courts, tax collection, foreign aid, homeland security and health care for veterans)”. But rapid growth is also taking place in China, where the military budget is about $229 billion and “modernization” programs are driving its growth up by an estimated 7.1 percent per year, and of course in Europe, where the Ukraine war has led a new prioritization for all things military.

Odious Debt. The poor are in all ways disadvantaged, and this of course means adequate climate action is often beyond their grasp, as is sustainable development itself. For some key current details, see the 2022 Financing for Sustainable Development Report, which begins not with the COVID pandemic but with the “legacy of inequality” that already hung over the poor countries when it arrived, a legacy that only deepened as the COVID crisis cascaded into broader economic instability (supply chains, inflation, higher interest rates) and then into the instabilities and economic dislocations of the Ukraine war. The chief point here, to be undiplomatic, is the billions in debt interest that the developing countries must every year pay to their creditors in the wealthy world, a burden that is sometimes so odious that the term “debt slavery”  seems more a simple honest description than any kind of hyperbole.

How large is the developing world’s external debt? Estimates vary, as does the legitimacy of the debt – how valid was it, really, to transfer South Africa’s apartheid debt to its inheritors, most of whom never had any part in negotiating it, or benefiting from it?  What is clear is that the total external debt of the developing countries reached $10.6 trillion in the wake of the pandemic, and that the servicing of this debt consumes resources that are now desperately needed for both development and the climate transition. In the low-income countries alone, external debt sharply increased during that pandemic, reaching $860 billion in 2020. No wonder a new wave of defaults has begin, and that widespread debt distress appears to be on the horizon.

Dynastic wealth. This brief list would not be complete without a mention of dynastic wealth, which is passed down from generation to generation within families, and of course within castes and classes. The numbers vary tremendously from country to country, but the US figures alone are boggling enough. Wealth managers estimate that “nearly 45 million U.S. households will transfer a total of $68.4 trillion in wealth to heirs and charity over the course of the next 25 years”. And of course, much of these transfers will be protected from taxation – according to one keystone study, “these wealthy families will avoid as much as $8.4 trillion in estate and generation-skipping taxes between now and 2024, by using dynasty trusts and other currently legal loopholes”.

Tax Avoidance. Speaking of the rich, we should mention hidden wealth, which is shielded by tax havens and secrecy laws, and has now been estimated to be about 8% of the world’s household financial wealth, or 10% of GWP . In 2007, this came to about $5.7 trillion. More generally, and this is probably the best bottom-line figure for this brief summary, taxing the world’s richest could raise about $2.52 trillion a year. It’s not enough to support all the ongoing social services associated with a just and sustainable global society, but it would definitely help. It would certainly cover the core of the climate transition. And if we may add a country specific data point, note that the wealth of the US billionaire class increased by an estimated $1.7 trillion since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, and that, under current laws, almost none of this new wealth will ever be taxed.

Blood Fossils. Finally, given Russia’s war on Ukraine, it seems appropriate to note that a good fraction of the untold billions that are spent on fossil fuels are diverted, sometimes immediately, to support the worst kinds of infamy. The exact figure varies with the price of gas and oil, but as of this writing, good estimates held that “Europe’s ongoing energy purchases send as much as $850 million each day into Russia’s coffers” (estimates vary, but see the citation to the Bruegal think tank’s numbers here). This, of course, is clear evidence of an intolerable dependence, and voices everywhere have risen to denounce it. What is not clear is how many of them will denounce the larger dependence, which hems us in on every side, with anything like equal vigour. Russian oil and gas, after all, is only the tip of the fossil iceberg.

 

 

“Equity Working Group” submission to the Global Stocktake

Let’s imagine, just for a second, that things get back on track, or at least back to normal. That we avoid a larger war, stabilize liberal democracy, and even — as an essential part of the climate mobilization — get the negotiations into gear. In this case, the so-called “Global Stocktake” will suddenly transform into what international climate policy activists have long hoped it wold be — a crucible in which the equity agenda is reshaped into a pathway of true international ambition.

The Global Stocktake, in case you missed it, was a hard-fought victory that represents the strongest “equity hook” in the Paris Agreement. Its kernel, as expressed in Article 14 of the Agreement, calls for the collective ambition of the world’s countries to be assessed every five years, in the light of “the best available science” and — this was the hard part — “in the light of equity.”

A long story, all this, but here’s the part to remember. The world’s nations could not agree on even a vague and toothless assessment of individual national pledges of climate action. Which meant that civil society activists and research organizations had to step forward and try, as best they could, to fill that gap. One of the new actors in this space is the Independent Global Stocktake, which has a number of working groups, one of them being the Equity Working Group, which I am pleased to help coordinate.

The EWG is a pretty interesting crew — climate equity experts from around the world. And some of its collective views are contained in the iGST’s first official submission to the formal UN stocktake. I’m particularly proud of this bit, from the abstract, which will, perhaps, get a bit of attention as the negotiations grind forward:

“To conduct the GST “in light of equity” it will be essential to set its scope appropriately. In addition to finding ways of including all of mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage, finance and support, and capacity building, the GST will need to find ways of accommodating the dynamic nature of global goals for adaptation and loss and damage as these are dependent on global achievements across mitigation, finance and support, and capacity building.

The GST must open into high-quality assessments in the light of equity. This means that, though the GST outcomes are themselves mandated to be collective, the GST will need to create a context within which the global community can move towards a shared understanding of the principles and benchmarks appropriate to assessing the equity, and inequity, of individual national pledges and individual national actions. The challenge of just differentiation, after all, has not gone away.”

Here’s the submission . . .

The Upcoming UN Climate Talks in Glasgow Are a Make-or-Break Moment

Failure to halt greenhouse gas emissions is not an option—though it’s frighteningly likely

Originally published in Sierra Magazine, here.

In early November, government leaders from around the world will meet in Glasgow, Scotland, for the latest round of United Nations–sponsored climate change negotiations. This year’s climate summit—COP26, in UN-speak—will be the most important since the 2015 talks in Paris, and this will be true however the meeting unfolds. If Glasgow is a “success,” this will be taken as a sign that our faltering international institutions might actually, if just barely, be able to spur the planetary mobilization we now desperately need. If it’s a “failure,” well, no such luck—it will become even more difficult to imagine cooperative planetary action, at scale and in time to avoid a truly catastrophic shift in the climate system.

How will we tell if Glasgow is a success? This is a tough question, one that involves judgments about both the geophysical realities of a destabilized Earth and the “realities” of our political systems, which are clearly not up to the challenge. The storms and the firestorms are looming large, and so too is the catastrophe of “vaccine apartheid,” which under Boris Johnson’s government has queued up a summit that does not promise to be either safe or inclusive. Even in the best case, the Glasgow COP is not going to yield anything like a world historic breakthrough. Given that a breakthrough is exactly what we need, how can we ever hope to judge the UN talks as even a measured success? By attending to key details. Keep in mind that, six years after Paris, plenty of people in the climate movement still can’t say “Paris” without saying “failure,” and this despite the obvious fact that, had the Paris Agreement not been completed before Donald Trump’s election, we would now be in even more terrifying straits.

But what if, when we say “Glasgow success,” we mean not a historic breakthrough but just a proper reboot of the climate negotiations? Such a reboot would include meaningful new pledges of national action, some sort of significant leap forward on international climate finance, and a negotiations plan that explicitly sets the stage for further progress at COP27, the African COP that will take place in 2022, and the “Global Stocktake” that will follow in 2023. 

Such a reboot could actually happen. The Chinese government has already announced an end to international coal financing, and other large announcements could drop soon. It’s not impossible to imagine a future in which “Glasgow” comes to connote a new seriousness and a pivot to a new round of international negotiations that can actually be taken seriously. 

Is such a new seriousness possible? It is, and though this may sound odd, this may be because these last few years have been so challenging. In them we have seen the rise, almost everywhere, of anti-democratic movements of sometimes astonishing venality—and we’ve also seen illusions falling away. We have experienced the pandemic and also the catastrophically botched vaccine rollout, but also the widespread realization that international cooperation is becoming an existential imperative. We have seen the new IPCC report, which told us exactly what time it is. And all of this has crystalized the awareness, now clear and widespread, that despite all the possibilities of the renewables revolution, renewables alone won’t save us, not unless they are joined with a well-planned, justice-forward push for a global transformation that, as the IPCC clearly told us back in 2018, would have “no historical precedent.” 

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To know if Glasgow is even a measured success, start with the realization that there is virtually no functioning global governance on this planet. The startlingly inadequacy of the Paris Agreement reflects this dismal reality. But the Paris Agreement wasn’t crafted by fools. It was designed to be adopted, and it was. It was also designed to be strengthened, and strengthened again, in periodic five-year intervals defined by endless, dispiriting political maneuvers, citizen-movement outrage, weary cynicism, exhausted cooperation, and, always, hope. The reason COP26 is a “make or break” moment is that it’s time now to attend to the strengthening. It’s time to turn the ambition ratchet. 

Here’s what that means: 

We need much stronger national pledges of action, and they will have to be honest ones. 

I’ve long thought that, when it finally became obvious we’re not going to avoid overshooting a 2.7°F rise in global temperatures (or 1.5°C), there would be a political crisis. We’ll find out soon enough. The IPCC says that “in almost all” its emissions scenarios we’re going to cross the 1.5°C line “in the early 2030s.” Only in the very best case—50 percent cuts in global emissions by 2030, then on to what I call “honest net zero” by the 2050s—will the warming then come to a relatively rapid halt. 

The good news, such as it is, is that if and when we reach honest net zero, the warming will actually plateau. This is a pretty amazing fact, and while it’s gotten a bit of press, it deserves much more. There may indeed be “tipping cascades” on the horizon, but it’s still physically possible to eddy out before we reach them. The question is if it’s also politically possible. 

The opening round of national pledges, tabled in Paris in 2015, don’t take us anywhere near 50 percent cuts by 2050. In fact, they imply a planetary warming of about 5.4°F (or 3°C) by the end of this century, which would be entirely catastrophic. According to the UN’s September “synthesis report,” the current pledges have us on a trajectory that’s only marginally better: a global temperature increase of 4.9°F (or 2.7°C) by 2100. This is why it’s crucial that the Glasgow pledges be strong enough to support an honest net zero 2050 emissions pathway, and that those pledges be believable.  

John Kerry, America’s international climate envoy, was absolutely right to say that the stakes are “unfathomable,” and equally right to say that success cannot come without real action from China, Russia, India, South Africa, Brazil, and “a host of countries.” Alas, such success also demands far more international climate finance, and here the US has not stepped so eagerly to the plate. To be fair, President Biden has vowed to increase the US climate finance pledge to $11.4 billion annually, but this number was calculated within the cramped equations of American domestic politics and has no relation whatsoever with either the global need or the US fair share. The new pledge from the Philippines well exemplifies the problem. The Philippines aims to sharply reduce national emissions, but only about 3 percent of this reduction is “unconditional.” The rest—in sectors from farming to energy to industry to transport—will require financial support from wealthier countries. 

There’s still time to avoid an unmanageable future. This won’t be true forever, but it’s still true today, and this counts for a great deal. So keep your eyes open. Attend to the finance pledges of the rich countries and the “conditional” pledges of the poor ones. Attend, in particular, to the implied collective ambition—what will global emissions be in 2030? Focus, too, on the claims countries make for the fairness of their pledges. They all know, at this point, that they have to say something about fairness, though most countries are still trying to avoid honest reckonings with their fair shares

There is no path to climate stabilization without international public climate finance, and lots of it. 

Climate stabilization has everything to do with economic justice. Why? Because the majority of the world’s emissions now come from the so-called Global South, and thus, by definition, most of the work of planetary decarbonization must happen there as well. The problem is that, in sharp contrast to its emissions, most of the world’s wealth is still in the Global North. This is the key thing, and it means that the great decarbonization is simply not going to happen in time unless the rich world helps the poor one along by providing a great deal of financial and technological support. 

This is going to be a long story, one that will extend far beyond the $100 billion in annual climate transition support that was first promised back in Copenhagen in 2009. But its simplest takeaway is that wealthy countries like the United States cannot do their fair share solely within their own borders. Rather, their domestic actions must be supplemented by support for even more action in poorer countries. Unless that happens, the net zero 2050 push is doomed

This isn’t exactly a secret. The elites know full well that a great deal of capital will have to be reallocated if the climate is to be stabilized, but for the most part, they plan to attack the problem by redirecting private capital flows—as opposed to government monies. Within the negotiations, this comes down as a tension between the partisans of Paris’s Article 9.3 (in which developing countries “take the lead in mobilizing climate finance from a wide variety of sources, instruments, and channels”) and Article 2.1(c) (in which the spotlight is on “making financial flows consistent” with the demands of the larger transition).

That’s all very technical. The plain English issue here is international public “climate finance,” and how much of it will be provided, and by whom, and how. Not that redirecting private “financial flows” isn’t also going to be fundamental. We live within capitalism, after all. But we have to stop pretending that public finance deserves only a small, secondary role. Especially today in 2021, the need here should be obvious, given the vast public funds that had to be mobilized to stabilize our COVID-shattered economy. 

We have to face the Loss and Damage challenge that lies beyond the limits of “adaptation.”

In the beginning—meaning, oh, a scant 30 years ago—there was the dream of easy “mitigation”: If only we could get the prices right, technological revolution would bring down greenhouse gas emissions and solve the climate problem. Then came the recognition that “adaptation”—building sea walls, embracing agroecology, abandoning consumerism—would be necessary as well. Today, it’s generally agreed that half of all public climate finance—like that disbursed by the UN’s Green Climate Fund—should go to adaptation. 

But what happens when your whole island goes under? Or if, year upon year, the encroaching sand from desertification takes your crops? What happens when you and your family can no longer survive at home and are compelled, with hope or without, to set out across the borders? The issue here, officially known as “Loss and Damage,” is the one you face when adaptation is no longer possible. Loss and Damage puts a name to an almost boundless challenge (huge regions of the planet will at some point be virtually uninhabitable) and poses questions of liability and compensation that point far beyond the capacities of governance as usual

This, too, is a long story. The United States, in particular, lobbied hard to include a Loss and Damage liability waiver in the Paris decision text, though this hardly settled the matter. A long and deeply committed campaign led by the Global South (both diplomats and activists) managed to keep Loss and Damage on the UN negotiating agenda, and indeed to establish it as a defining issue, crucial to the legitimacy of the entire negotiating process. 

The real issue here is life and death. This is true in America, a rich country that is being harrowed by climate-amplified disasters, but it is even more true in poor and relatively innocent parts of the world, where such disasters threaten to overwhelm and destroy entire societies. It’s no surprise, then, to find that action on Loss and Damage has become a planetary litmus test, one that clearly identifies the people who are willing to face the moral realities of the coming world and to struggle with their consequences.  

Obviously, I don’t know how this story ends. I do know that, without robust and sustained international cooperation, it will not be possible to stabilize the climate system. Such cooperation will not be possible unless we face the Loss and Damage challenge, and I would like to believe that we will. 

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With the American West on fire, the East being battered by new kinds of storms, and the expanses of our country being torn asunder by the new Right, it would be insane to argue that the international crisis should, or even could, trump the domestic one. Still. International solidarity is a non-negotiable presupposition of any realist path forward, and when it comes time to discuss the climate negotiations, it can no longer be set aside for later consideration. It’s far too late to think solely in national terms. 

As for these three issues, I don’t pretend that they capture the entire Glasgow agenda. When taken together, however, they spotlight the equity challenge that is and has always been at the heart of the international climate reckoning. The pandemic, perhaps oddly, has made this easier to understand. Climate mobilization means effort sharing and technology cooperation on an unprecedented scale, but so does international public health in the face of a deadly, rapidly mutating viral adversary. 

Many of the diplomats now fighting to animate the climate negotiations are fully aware of the stakes. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, called the IPCC’s new assessment report “Code Red for mankind.” This was not empty rhetoric. Nor is it a surprise. Our conditions of existence are now well known. The question is what are we going to do about them.  

Fair Shares in a Net Zero World

I was recently invited to write a short opinion piece on the need for a public climate finance breakthrough for Yale Climate Connections. You can find the result as Equity and fair shares in a net-zero world, though I implore you to ignore the rather distracting graphic. (What year is this? Who’s the woman in the sharkskin suit? What’s the deal with Al Gore’s boots?)

After publishing the piece, I received an email from a friend with a nice picture of a flying pig. I see the point, but I don’t take it. My explicit goal, after all, is to redefine realism for this the time of climate emergency—which is why I’m arguing that the US should move to animate the global climate talks by offering $27 billion a year in international public climate finance.

Not that this would be the US’s fair share. But, when combined with a major domestic effort, it would be a respectable opening move, as is clearly argued in the US Fair Shares NDC, which an ad hoc group of us recently drafted “as if” we were speaking for the U.S.

I’ve long said we only need two things to save ourselves and our civilization — a thorough-going green technology revolution and a “high cooperation world”. I see now that I’ve been too abstract. We actually need three things, and if the green tech revolution is the first, the climate justice movement is absolutely the second. We haven’t a hope without it.

As for the third, I don’t quite know how to characterize it, save to say that it has to do with the ruling elites, who had better wake up soon, and ask themselves some hard questions.

Because it’s their move.

Equity, mitigation, and the role of the U.S. in the Global Stocktake

In late May 2021, a small subset of members of the independent Global Stocktake (iGST) gathered for a conversation prompted by the recently released United States Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) and its potential impact on global climate equity, emissions reductions, and the upcoming Global Stocktake.

The dialogue elicited insights on the increasing level of political support for climate action by states, cities, businesses, and other subnational actors that enabled the ambition of the U.S. NDC to be ratcheted up. Participants discussed how the U.S. might support equity within the Global Stocktake (GST), the formal process for assessing implementation of the Paris Agreement. They also considered the ways in which the official GST, negotiated and conducted within the bounds of the UNFCCC, may be constrained and the ways in which the independent community can increase climate action by subnational and national actors alike.

The dialogue, edited for brevity and clarity, in here.

More information about the Global Stocktake can be found here and about the iGST here.

Participants: Casey Cronin, ClimateWorks Foundation; Jason Anderson, ClimateWorks Foundation; Leon Clarke, University of Maryland Center for Global Sustainability; Nathan Hultman, University of Maryland Center for Global Sustainability; Sivan Kartha, Stockholm Environment Institute; Tom Athanasiou, EcoEquity

The Fair Shares NDC hits the Media

Well, the launch of the U.S. Fair Shares Nationally Determined Contribution went pretty well.  (Not the real one, though that launch was also pretty successful). The first major pickup was from Bill McKibben, who featured the FSNDC in his New Yorker climate column, here,  in this nice pithy paragraph. 

“I’ve written before about the important work of EcoEquity in figuring out the responsibility that different countries should bear for the climate crisis and how they should respond. Building on this work, a group of N.G.O.s last week called on the U.S. to cut emissions by a hundred and ninety-five per cent from 2005 levels by 2030. This can be achieved by cutting our own carbon output by seventy per cent, and providing technology and funding to developing countries to help them achieve the equivalent of the remaining hundred-and-twenty-five-per-cent reduction. Meanwhile, the Times reports that dozens of countries need debt relief because climate crises (and COVID-19) are decimating their budgets. Increasingly, according to Somini Sengupta, lenders such as the International Monetary Fund are studying proposals under which “rich countries and private creditors offer debt relief, so countries can use those funds to transition away from fossil fuels, adapt to the effects of climate change, or obtain financial reward for the natural assets they already protect, like forests and wetlands.”

Then, as we approached Earth Day and President Biden’s Climate Leaders Summit, things picked up. Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich published a nice piece called The U.S. Has a New Climate Goal. How Does It Stack Up Globally? which included this balanced segment, and a nice quote from Climate Equity Reference Project co-director Sivan Kartha:

“If every country were to meet its stated climate goals, America’s per capita emissions would decline and converge with China’s by 2030, the Rhodium Group estimated. But both countries’ per capita emissions would still be twice that of Europe’s and nearly four times that of India’s.

Partly for that reason, some environmentalists have argued that the United States should have picked an even more ambitious target for reducing emissions. Doing so would not only make up for decades of being by far the world’s largest emitter, they argue, but would also give lower-income countries like India more time to transition off fossil fuels. One recent report by a range of civil society groups urged the United States to commit to a 70 percent cut by 2030, along with vast new funding for clean-energy projects in the developing world.

“If you’re asking whether the U.S. target is fair and ambitious, the right yardstick isn’t what will pass muster with the Senate,” said Sivan Kartha, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute and a co-author of the report. “The question is what should the United States do given its capacity to act and its historical responsibility for causing the problem?”

That was great, but we had expected it. But then we discovered that Kate Aronoff, a staff writer at The New Republic whose new book on the climate crisis Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet–And How We Fight Back–can I say that it’s hot off the press?–immediately joined the short list of essential climate-political titles, had just featured the Fair Shares NDC in in the opinion section, with a fine piece called Biden Is All About Zero Emissions, but Who Do You Think Has Been Fueling Them?, wherein she embeds this para . . .

“But accounting for the United States’ outsize responsibility for the climate crisis requires much bolder action, according to a recent recommendation from several groups, including Friends of the Earth U.S. and ActionAid USA: “a reduction of at least 195 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions” compared with 2005 levels by 2030 — 70 percent cuts within U.S. borders and “the equivalent of a further 125 percent reduction” by providing support for emissions reductions abroad.”

. . . into a longer argument that centers the sprawling landscape of geopolitical, geoeconomic, and ideological challenges the are the subject of her book. I must read for sure.

The day ended, at least for me, with an invitation to speak on BBC TV, which I of course accepted, though I am a bit out of practice. You can watch it here.

Not too bad for one day

 

Avoiding a ‘Ghastly Future’ — and a few responses

“Telling the Truth,” as per Extinction Rebellion’s first rule, turns out to be a bit complicated.  It’s easy to tell the “We’re probably fucked” part of the story. The hard part is imagining a way forward.

Back in January, a group of 17 ecologists and environmental scientists — prominently including Paul Ehrlich — published Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future in Frontiers in Conservation Science.

It’s a must read, and a grim one. And can’t hope to improve on the summary ecologist Carl Safina gave in Yale Environment 360 when he said that it reads “reads less as an argument than as a rain of asteroids encountered in the course of flying blind on a lethal trajectory,” or his summary of its findings, which only begin with biodiversity loss. Here (minus the links) is a sample:

“Major changes in the biosphere are directly linked to the growth of human systems. While the rapid loss of species and populations differs regionally in intensity, and most species have not been adequately assessed for extinction risk, certain global trends are obvious. Since the start of agriculture around 11,000 years ago, the biomass of terrestrial vegetation has been halved , with a corresponding loss of >20% of its original biodiversity, together denoting that >70% of the Earth’s land surface has been altered by Homo sapiens . There have been >700 documented vertebrate and ~600 plant species extinctions over the past 500 years, with many more species clearly having gone extinct unrecorded . Population sizes of vertebrate species that have been monitored across years have declined by an average of 68% over the last five decades, with certain population clusters in extreme decline , thus presaging the imminent extinction of their species . Overall, perhaps 1 million species are threatened with extinction in the near future out of an estimated 7–10 million eukaryotic species on the planet, with around 40% of plants alone considered endangered . Today, the global biomass of wild mammals is <25% of that estimated for the Late Pleistocene , while insects are also disappearing rapidly in many regions.”

But I’m not writing to ask you to read the “ghastly” paper. I’m writing to ask you to read it, and then to read Safina’s review of it, and then to read Notes from a 1.2C world, a response the emerging critic Laurie Laybourn-Langton wrote of it, and my own response, below, though with the stipulation that is an it’s an “insider” document I wrote to the folks at The Omega Network after attending the webinar they organized to discuss it. And I’m asking you, after doing all this reading, to up your game.

What’s the problem? That this paper, brilliant though it is in describing the deterioration of our planetary home, it is not equally brilliant when it comes to helping us work out how to respond. Which was to be expected back in the old days, but this is 2021 — the eye of the storm — and the second wind is approaching, and what matters now is what we’re going to do.

Not that Ghastly’s description of the problem is bad . . .

Continue reading “Avoiding a ‘Ghastly Future’ — and a few responses”

Tom speaks, this time to Doug Henwood

Following the publication of The US Returns to the Paris Agreement Today—With Lots of Work Ahead for the World in The Nation, I spent some time expounding my very conditional optimism on Doug Henwood’s Behind the News podcast. The interview, which was performed on March 4, is here (27:50) and I actually think it was pretty coherent.

Listen if you’re on the left, worried about climate catastrophe, sick of blithe criticisms of the Paris Agreement.

Over 50,000 people & 195 global groups demand Biden commit the U.S. to do its “fair share” on climate

February 17, 2021

The petition is the latest call for Biden administration to walk the walk on climate by taking responsibility for historical emissions

Washington — Just days before the reentry of the United States into the Paris Agreement becomes official, environmental groups delivered the signatures of more than 50,000 people in the U.S. The signatures are the latest escalation in a growing call demanding that the Biden Administration commit to doing its fair share of emissions cuts and honor owed support for Global South countries, including climate finance. The petition reflects analysis released in December from the U.S. Climate Action Network (USCAN) that provides a path for the U.S. to take action that is in line with its responsibility for the climate crisis. 

The delivery follows a sign-on letter from over 100 U.S. climate groups including USCAN  which represents more than 175 US climate organizations, released for the 5-year anniversary of the adoption of the Paris Agreement. The call has now been endorsed by a total of 195 organizations including the international Climate Action Network, which represents more than 1,500 organizations from over 130 countries. 

Earlier this month a similar coalition also demanded that the Biden administration commit $8 billion to the Green Climate Fund as well as further contributions to the Adaptation Fund. While the Biden transition team has yet to acknowledge the demand from this national coalition of people and organizations, incoming Climate Envoy John Kerry has spoken about the need for the US to do its fair share.

According to the analysis released by USCAN, for the U.S. to begin to do its fair share of the global action needed to help limit global warming to 1.5°C, it must reduce U.S. emissions 195% by 2030 (down from 2005 levels). To assemble this contribution, the analysis calls for U.S. domestic emissions reductions of 70% by 2030 combined with a further 125% reduction achieved by providing financial and technological support for emission reductions in Global South countries.

The Biden administration has enacted a flurry of climate executive orders and previously committed to a plan of net-zero by 2050. But announcements to achieve net zero have been met with criticism from climate groups and scientists for not being ambitious enough and relying on technologies and approaches that are unproven, dangerous, or not achievable at scale.  

The extremely large U.S. fair share contribution partly reflects U.S. emissions to date. Today’s global warming is driven by cumulative emissions (not annual emissions), and the U.S. has already historically emitted more than any other country. In fact, many analyses deem that the U.S. has far surpassed its fair share of the cumulative global carbon budget for limiting warming to 1.5°C. The domestic reduction of 70% by 2030 recommended by USCAN roughly aligns with an extremely ambitious decarbonization via a prosperous economy-wide mobilization.

The fair share demand is one part of a larger framework prescribed by environmental groups called the Climate President Action Plan. The plan includes ten steps the administration can take to fulfill its promise to take bold steps on climate and rebuild trust abroad.  

Continue reading “Over 50,000 people & 195 global groups demand Biden commit the U.S. to do its “fair share” on climate”

It’s Time for the US to Carry Its Fair Share on Climate Change

This essay was first published in Sierra Magazine

The term “climate injustice” is easy to understand. When the poor and vulnerable people of New Orleans or Nicaragua are abandoned to the ravages of a climate-fueled hurricane, we know something hideous has occurred. But climate justice is not just the absence of climate injustice. It also demands the presence of real and meaningful fairness, and an extremely ambitious climate mobilization that takes this fairness just as seriously as decarbonization itself. No mobilization that tries to skip this step can possibly succeed.

Check the science and you’ll see how very late it is. Stabilizing the climate would be extraordinarily difficult under the best of circumstances, which these are decidedly not. Add the imperative of mobilizing in a fair way and the challenge can seem overwhelming. Why is fairness so decisive? The simple answer is cooperation. Absent an overall sense of fairness, justice, and equity—and the cooperation required to achieve those ideals—we haven’t got a chance of avoiding climate chaos. Bringing down greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to keep global temperatures (more or less) in check is going to be the hardest thing we’ve ever done. We can only do it together.

But how to achieve a sense of fairness in a world where many people are appallingly poor and some are astonishingly rich? Where all nations are divided? Where some have vastly overdrawn their proper share of the planetary carbon budget, while others have done almost nothing to cause the climate crisis? This, in a nutshell, is the fair shares problem, as we find it on the climate front. Even if the United States honestly reduces its emissions to net zero in 2050, it will not have done its fair share of the planetary effort.

Continue reading “It’s Time for the US to Carry Its Fair Share on Climate Change”