Climate Change is a Class Issue

We’re not all in this together

Paris Marx
Oct 25, 2018 · 9 min read

On October 8, 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change put out its latest report, outlining the climate effects of 1.5ºC and 2ºC warming, the efforts that will have to be taken for us to hit those targets, and how current emissions-reduction pledges get us nowhere near where we need to be. But it also woke the world up to the need to act — at least for a week or two.

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The report outlined how our transportation, land-use, building, energy, food, and other systems need to be redesigned from the ground up to reduce emissions and prepare for a warmer world. We have just 12 years to slash emissions by 45 percent below 2010 levels and hit net zero by 2050 if we’re to have a chance at keeping warming below 1.5ºC. An infographic from the World Resources Institute effectively outlines the difference between 1.5ºC and 2ºC, and, quite honestly, the 1.5ºC scenario looks scary enough — I don’t know why we’d want to risk hitting 2ºC or higher. Yet, the reaction to the report makes it seem like that’s exactly where we’re headed.

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Infographic via WRI

The media, which usually does a terrible job at covering climate change, at least put some climate stories on its front page in response to the report before turning its attention back to the Trump reality show that so effectively brings in ad money and eyeballs. For a few days, people at least pretended to care, but what really changed? Not a whole lot.

No governments made significant policy shifts in response to the report, which said that current pledges have us heading for upwards of 3.2ºC of warming, and that’s if countries hold to them — the United States has already pulled out of the Paris Agreement and Brazil may be about to do the same. I’m tempted to descend into despair at this point, but let’s try to remain hopeful. There’s a reason not enough is being done, and identifying the root of the problem could help us to address it.

We’re often told that climate change is an issue that will affect all of humanity; that our collective future is under threat the more the world warms. But is that really true? Are we all going to be affected in the same way as the mercury soars? Of course not.

If the effects of climate change were going to be equally distributed, we’d be doing a lot more about it. The truth is that geography and income make a huge difference to how severe the impacts of climate change will be, and that explains why so little is being done.

Even though there will undoubtedly be impacts across high-income Western countries, the brunt of the pain will be felt by those living in poorer nations across the world that don’t have the infrastructure or the means to adapt to climate change, and may be either low-lying or at risk of greater desertification as sea levels rise and temperatures increase.

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Yet, outside parts of Europe, Western countries aren’t doing nearly enough to reduce emissions. It’s not uncommon to hear conservative politicians or people associated with resources industries in Canada or Australia argue that they contribute a small percentage of global emissions so it’s okay if they don’t cut their emissions as much as the United States and China — with emphasis on the latter.

But that argument fails to account for the true responsibility for climate change — both from historical and per-capita perspectives. Those in the West who don’t want to cut emissions, or at least not quickly, love to point the finger at China — now the world’s largest emitter — to argue the People’s Republic isn’t doing nearly enough. However, instead of looking at China — which is installing record amounts of renewable energy and whose investments in solar panels and electric buses are making them cheaper for the rest of the world — they should be accepting their own responsibility and leading the way.

Carbon emissions are not new; countries have been increasing their use of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution, and as a result some countries have emitted a lot more of the carbon budget than others. China may be emitting a lot today, but historically they’re responsible for a much smaller relative percentage of those emissions, while the West has emitted a much larger chunk.

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Charts via WRI

Population also needs to be considered, and it’s where the Canadian and Australian arguments are particularly irresponsible. They have among the highest per-capita emissions in the world, which means they have an even greater responsibility to cut their emissions. Why should an individual Australian or Canadian be permitted to have a larger carbon budget than an individual from China or India?

The richest countries have emitted much more over time than poorer countries, and their residents emit more than those in other parts of the world — far more in some cases. That means they have a greater responsibility to slash their emissions — and fast — but instead many refuse to accept it. Digging into the groups and individuals involved can help to illuminate why.

While looking at the country level gives us valuable insight into which countries and regions have the greatest responsibility to lead the world at reducing emissions, paying attention to the players within those countries makes it quite clear why they’re not stepping up to the plate. Certain massive corporations and very wealthy individuals have benefited immensely from the status quo, and they’ll stop at nothing to ensure the gravy train keeps flowing — even if that means wreaking havoc on the planet and turning hundreds of millions of people into climate refugees.

Talking about country-level emissions can provide important context to the conversation, but it’s not all that needs to be understood. The truth is that most emissions come from a relatively small number of companies and percentage of the overall population. 71 percent of the emissions created since 1970 were the responsibility of a mere 100 major corporations, and that knowledge can inform which companies and sectors we target to achieve swift emissions reduction.

Further, not everyone emits the same amount. The single mother who works a couple jobs to try to support her child isn’t emitting nearly as much as a corporate CEO crisscrossing the world in a private jet. Globally, the richest 10 percent of people are responsible for 49 percent of lifestyle consumption emissions, while the poorest 50 percent generate just 10 percent of the CO₂ making its way into our atmosphere. You can see how backwards that is, and whose lifestyles need to change the most — the very people who have the power and who have many incentives to keep things as they are.

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Charts via Oxfam

Think about it: the current economic system, heavily dependent as it is on fossil fuels, is the one that has enriched so many of the people who are burning a majority of the emissions, and the same goes for the companies responsible for such a high percentage of emissions. Inequality has soared since the 1970s, giving them even more power and even more reason to resist significant change that would see their wealth — and thus their power — reduced.

But on top of that, the richest people have a unique ability to protect themselves from the ravages of climate change. Most people have no recourse if a hurricane wipes out their home or when the threat of sea level rise makes its value plummet. The rich, on the other hand, can not only insulate themselves, they’ve already started to plan for when things turn south.

They’re buying properties abroad to have somewhere to flee if the people in the United States turn on them — New Zealand is a particularly popular destination. They’re also building more bunkers and safe houses, stocked so they can wait out whatever catastrophe might force them to hide out.

When Hurricane Michael tore through Florida earlier this month, a photo circulated of a single house left standing along Mexico Beach. It wasn’t just any house, but one that its wealthy owners spent a significant premium on to ensure it was built to withstand winds up to 400 km/h (250 mph). The rich can afford to prepare their homes for worse storms in a way most people cannot.

But even further than that, billionaires are increasingly obsessed with space, whether it’s going to Mars, the moon, or the space station. Elon Musk keeps promising he’s sending people to Mars, while constantly pushing the date (as he’s known to do), and Jeff Bezos acts as though he’s doing the world a great duty by spending his fortune on space instead of the pressing problems down here on planet Earth. What if what they’re really doing is getting the infrastructure ready to eventually leave the rest of us behind on the husk of a planet they destroyed to make themselves fabulously rich? Maybe Elysium is our future, but we won’t be up in the space station; we’ll be down in the dirt, pushed around by lethal robot police.

There should be no question that we need to radically alter the systems we depend on to make them more sustainable and to end our addiction to fossil fuels. The future of our species depends on it — not to mention all the other species we’re forcing into extinction with every day that we delay taking action.

But there’s a reason we’re not. Fossil fuel companies spend billions lobbying governments to water down climate plans and mess with political systems, while funneling billions more into sham science designed to mislead the media and the masses so they support the continuation of the status quo against their own long-term (and even short-term) interests. That’s a big part of the problem in Canada and Australia.

Climate change isn’t a challenge for humanity; it’s a competition of one class against another. There’s a small group of wealthy people who do not want us to shift to a more sustainable world because it jeopardizes their ability to keep adding billions more to their net worth, regardless of the millions of people who will suffer as a result. The rich think they’ll be able to protect themselves from the worst effects of climate change, so they won’t do anything. That means the responsibility is on the rest of us.

We need to wake up to what scientists are saying, and force the political system to reflect the demands of the many, not the interests of the wealthy few. That will take coordinated action, but it can be done; and if they refuse, they’ll be replaced. Could frustration with the lack of action be behind the growing support for Green parties in Europe and Canada?

For the past couple decades, wealthy climate activists have fed us the idea that changing our lightbulbs and buying organic food would be enough to fight climate change — but that was always a lie. We need a fundamental shift yesterday, but that can only happen if we challenge the power of the wealthy and their firm grip on our democratic institutions.

We can rapidly transform our social, economic, and political systems to prepare for a warmer world while keeping warming below 1.5ºC — it’s not an impossible task. But to do so we have to come together and force the change, because it will never be granted from those who benefit from the current system that’s proving to be a fundamental threat to the future of (most of) humanity.

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Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Radical Urbanist

Cities have more power than ever to shape the future.

Paris Marx

Written by

Critic of tech futures and host of Tech Won’t Save Us: https://bit.ly/twsu

Radical Urbanist

Cities have more power than ever to shape the future. In Radical Urbanist, @parismarx explores their approaches to transportation, climate change, and monopolistic tech companies to see if they’re doing enough.

Paris Marx

Written by

Critic of tech futures and host of Tech Won’t Save Us: https://bit.ly/twsu

Radical Urbanist

Cities have more power than ever to shape the future. In Radical Urbanist, @parismarx explores their approaches to transportation, climate change, and monopolistic tech companies to see if they’re doing enough.

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