Sunday, April 28, 2019

Climate Change and Economic Inequality

I recently participated in a local event honoring Earth Day, featuring presentations on climate change, the IPCC report, and the Green New Deal. I delivered a brief presentation that highlighted the connections between climate change and economic justice. My remarks are lightly edited. 
If you have a pragmatist in your life, you have no doubt heard the saying, “Hope for the best; prepare for the worst.” It’s good sense, although it breaks down when it comes to the topic of catastrophic climate change. There’s no real way we can adequately comprehend, let alone prepare for, the worst case scenario here. In fact, this is the most risky and horrifying case of brinkmanship we have ever engaged in as a species.

What’s frustratingly difficult for most of us is our relative powerlessness when it comes to actually doing something meaningful to address climate change. It is true that all of us, especially all of us in the United States, are complicit. But we have also known for years that climate change is most driven by the choices of the very rich, and it is much easier to change light bulbs and grocery bags than the decisions of the rich and powerful. Addressing climate change will necessarily require addressing economic justice; they cannot be separated.  
For example, in 2015, Oxfam opened their report on “Extreme Carbon Inequality” by writing that 
“Climate change is inextricably linked to economic inequality: it is a crisis that is driven by the greenhouse gas emissions of the ‘haves’ that hits the ‘have-nots’ the hardest.” ( )
The researchers explained that,
“the richest 10 percent of people produce half of the planet’s individual-consumption-based fossil fuel emissions, while the poorest 50 percent — about 3.5 billion people — contribute only 10 percent. Yet those same 3.5 billion people are ‘living overwhelmingly in the countries most vulnerable to climate change’ … . / Oxfam estimates that the world’s richest 10 percent of people have carbon footprints that are 60 times higher as the poorest 10 percent.” ( )
The trend holds true for corporate entities, too, as only 100 companies are responsible for approximately 71% of greenhouse gas emissions. Yet these powerful companies consistently and insistently choose “short-term profitability” over “the urgent need to reduce emissions.” ( )

In other words, the very wealthy have literally been willing to risk the suffering and death of millions upon millions of people in their pursuit of accumulating money and power. They have been willing to risk massive ecological collapse of the planet in order to satisfy insatiable greed. As Asad Rehman observed, 
"Climate destruction was the inevitable consequence of this neoliberal economic model – a model that insisted on deregulation, privatisation and allowing corporations to operate free from government intervention and put profit before people and the planet. / It also made sure that those facing the worst impacts were also least able to respond. From driving a race to the bottom on wages to eradicating state regulation and vital public services, it condemned 3.5 billion people to survive on $5 a day, whilst the top 1 per cent amassed over half of the world’s wealth and a carbon footprint 175 times that of the poorest." ( )
On the global scale, our individual choices are important but not sufficient – unless you are part of the 1%. Climate change is an ecological problem fueled by economic inequality. The very wealthy have greatly exacerbated the issues, and policies that address them, such as taxing their consumptive choices, are a key in the way forward.

Ultimately, we need an economic system that is sustainable, restorative, and regenerative. That will require big changes, but these will be less catastrophic changes than those that will arise from letting climate change accelerate unchecked. If we are preparing for the worst, we should also expect the very wealthy to continue to resist policy changes that require them to take responsibility for the catastrophes they are creating. They will also resist it because they are profiting from climate change. So we have to be willing to do the work. We are – we have to be - in this for the long haul.

What the masses have always had in our favor is that, when we actually come together to build communities and movements, new possibilities emerge. It’s not just the numbers; it is the people united in solidarity. Community building and movement building need to be priorities, if we are to have a realistic chance of success. Hopefully, there will be more and more places in this area where we can do things like we’ve done today, learning about the report on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and standing in solidarity with the Green New Deal. But you know there aren’t enough places in southwest Missouri where you don’t have to wonder if folks are on the side of economic, social, and ecological justice.

This is the age of catastrophic climate change, and we are going to need each other more than ever. We all have to do what we can, and we can do it best when we are in solidarity with one another: to amplify these messages, build community, and join movements that make us able to not just hope for the best, but help make it possible.