Wealth Inequality Is Fueling the Climate Emergency

On Wednesday, the United States of America and China made a surprise announcement at the U.N. summit on climate in Glasgow. They announced a joint pledge to reduce methane and slow deforestation. China is the largest recent emitter of carbon dioxide, while the United States is the oldest historical emitter. We speak with George Monbiot, a British journalist, and Kevin Anderson, a British climate scientist, about how world leaders and some climate scientists are downplaying climate crisis. “Everything we’ve been hearing here and at the previous 25 summits is basically distraction,” says Monbiot, adding that global leaders could “fix” the worst impacts of the climate crisis “in no time at all if they wanted to.” Both guests highlight the role of extreme wealth in fueling the climate crisis, with Anderson noting it’s unfair to penalize nations like China, whose rising emissions correlate to the production of goods transported to wealthier countries. “Equity has to be a key part of our responses,” says Anderson.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be final.

AMY GOODMAN:This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. This is Climate Countdown. I’m Amy Goodman, in New York, also joined by Democracy Now!Nermeen Shaikh is your co-host. Hi, Nermeen.

NERMEEN SHAIKH:Amy, welcome. We are glad to have you as our listener and viewer in the United States and around the globe.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to go right now to the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, where the United States and China made a surprise announcement yesterday about plans to work together to cut greenhouse gas emissions, including measures to reduce methane emissions and slow deforestation. The United States is the most prolific historical emitter and China is the largest recent emitter. However, the U.S. produces more carbon emissions per capita than China. Xie Zhenhua, China’s climate change envoy, spoke in Glasgow Wednesday.

XIE ZHENHUA: [translated]Climate change is a common problem facing humanity. It will have an impact on future generations. It’s becoming increasingly urgent and severe, turning a future challenge into a crisis happening now. The area of climate changes is a place where there is more agreement than divergence between China and the United States. It offers huge potential for cooperation. With two days remaining until the end of the summit, we hope this joint declaration will be China and the United States’ contribution to its success.

AMY GOODMAN: President Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, also spoke at the U.N. climate summit Wednesday.

JOHN KERRY: The United States and China have no shortage of differences, but on climate — on climate, cooperation is the only way to get this job done. This is not a voluntary thing. This is science. It’s math and physics that dictate the road that we have to travel.

AMY GOODMAN:Just hours after the text was published, the U.S.-China joint accord was announced. draftThe Glasgow agreement. The draft calls upon nations to strengthen climate plans and accelerate the phasing away of coal subsidies. Many climate justice groups criticized the draft for not requiring countries to do more to address climate crisis.

With the U.N. climate summit scheduled to end Friday, we’re joined by two of Britain’s leading critics of how the climate emergency is being handled at the summit. George Monbiot, journalist, author, columnist, is here with us The Guardian. He’s been hosting a daily program from Glasgow on COP26.tvSo called Monbiosis. His most recent book is entitled Out of the wreckage: A new politics for an age of crisis. His latest pieceIn The Guardian, “Make extreme wealth extinct: it’s the only way to avoid climate breakdown.” We’re also joined by Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at the University of Manchester and the University of Uppsala in Sweden. He’s a former director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research.

Kevin, let’s begin with you. Kevin Anderson, you said that science is on side of civil society and not the climate glitterati or negotiators or climate scientists. Can you please explain?

KEVIN ANDERSON: Sorry, Amy, you’ll have to say that again. It didn’t come through very clearly.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m just saying you have said that science is on the side of civil society, not the negotiators in Glasgow.

KEVIN ANDERSON:Yes. This is a direct result of the Joe Biden clip. [sic]When he said that the only thing that matters is the physics, and the maths, The physics and maths are very clear. If we are to deliver on the commitments, the 1.5 degree C commitment, for instance, that Joe Biden made at the G7 communiqué earlier this year, the maths and the physics tell us that, at current emissions, we have eight years at current emissions for a good chance at 1.5, and even for an outside chance at 1.5 degrees centigrade, we only 14 years.

So, when you then listen to the calls that are coming out of the various civil society movements, they’re much more in line with the rates of change that fit with the science than when you hear about these vague discussions between world leaders about future collaborations to make relatively small reductions in emissions from their countries. They are not talking in the same way Joe Biden is referring to. However, the science is more aligned with the work of the civil society movements and protesters in the more localized areas they engage in.

NERMEEN SHAIKH:Kevin Anderson, can your specific suggestions be given on what the science suggests these two largest emitters, the U.S.A. and China, should do?

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, we have to — we’re in such a desperate situation now. We’ve been in this position for 31 years, 30 years, since the first major climate change report. Since then, emissions have continued to rise year after year. There is now very little space for emissions. So the sorts of announcements we need to be hearing are things like no more fossil fuel development and the rapid phase-out of fossil fuel use within — particularly within the wealthy countries. If you look at our 1.5 degree Celsius commitment and see the difference between the developed and developing countries parties to the Paris Agreement, then you will notice the differences between the richer and poorer parts. If we want to achieve our 1.5 degree Celsius commitment, then we must be zero energy emissions by 2030 if we want to have a chance of reaching 1.5 by 2035. It sounds impossible.

But that is — we are in this situation because we have listened to these world leaders give us their vacuous talks for years and then go home and do absolutely nothing. Obama and Biden are both examples of this. Obama did it in the U.S. once before. Biden is demonstrating it now, and obviously Trump in between — well, you know, the less said about him, the better, perhaps. But we’re seeing this in virtually all the world leaders. It’s not just the U.S. It’s the EU. It’s the U.K. It’s Japan. It’s Australia. None of the progressive nations have any leadership. You will be able to see that China is also showing this lack of leadership when it concerns climate change.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: George Monbiot, I’d like to bring you into the conversation. You’ve been covering the summit and what has been missing from the summit that should have been included, that should be part of the talks. You said in a tweet earlier today that, quote, “Not one of the 26 climate summits has seriously discussed THEImportant issue [which is] leaving fossil fuels in the ground.” George Monbiot, could you talk about that?

GEORGE MONBIOT:Yes. I mean, the failure to discuss this crucial, central issue — not getting the stuff out of the ground in the first place — suggests that everything we’ve been hearing, here and at the previous 25 summits, is basically distraction. It’s hand-waving. It’s grandiloquent gestures. It’s pleasing the crowd. But it’s not addressing the central issue.

And, you know, it’s much easier to leave fossil fuels in the ground than to deal with the way that we burn them once we’ve extracted them, because there’s just a few thousand points around the world where we extract them, whereas there are billions of end uses of those fossil fuels. So, while we might say, “Well, yes, we have to insulate our homes. We have to change our light bulbs, all the rest,” which clearly we do, the most immediate and practical way of dealing with this impending catastrophe, of seeing off the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced, is to say, “Right, we’re just going to stop. No more coal, no more — no more petroleum, no more gas is going to come out of the ground by this date.” And as Kevin says so rightly, you know, it has to be full decarbonization by 2030, so that should be the date. We’re just going to stop getting it out of the ground.

And you say, “Well, how is that remotely possible?” It is more than remotely possible. It is possible, as we saw in the U.S. entry into the Second World War on December 8, 1941. Within months, the entire economy had changed from a civilian economy into a military one. The U.S. federal budget spent more money between 1942-1945 in current dollars than it did between 1789-1941. So, now they say, “Oh,, there’s no money. There’s nothing we can do.” That’s just nonsense. If they wanted to, they could fix it in no time. A similar program would allow us to eliminate all fossil fuels by 2030 and transition to a completely new energy economy.

NERMEEN SHAIKH:George, I’d also like to ask you about the recent events. piece, which is headlined “Make extreme wealth extinct: it’s the only way to avoid climate breakdown.” Now, we hear about the discrepancies in terms of emissions and consumption between rich and poor countries, but what you emphasize in this piece is the staggering difference between the consumption levels of rich individuals around the world, and the need, therefore, for a wealth tax. Could you please explain the situation?

GEORGE MONBIOT:Yes. This is a fundamental issue in justice and equity. The top 1% of wealth in the world produce 15% of greenhouse gas emissions. This is twice the amount of emissions produced by the bottom 50% who only emit 7% of total. So, we’re looking at a very small number of people grabbing the lion’s share of natural wealth. They claim to be wealth-creators. They’re actually taking wealth from the rest of us. They say, “We’re going to have all this atmospheric space for ourselves” — and, incidentally, all these other resources, all the mahogany and the gold and the diamonds and bluefin tuna sushi, whatever else that they’re consuming, on a massive scale.

This is due in large part to the incredible, disproportionate amount of aviation. There’s one set of figures suggesting that the richest 1% are responsible for 50% of the world’s aviation emissions. Their yachts are also responsible, of course. The average superyacht, whether it’s a garden superyacht or a common one, emits 7,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. If we’re to meet even the conventional accounting for staying within 1.5 degrees of global heating, our maximum emissions per person are around 2.3 tonnes. What’s the equivalent of a superyacht, then? Over 3,000 people’s worth of emissions. This is grossly, outrageously unfair. We must resist the greed of the very wealthy to take our natural wealth.

AMY GOODMAN:Asad Rehman is the executive director of War on Want and the lead spokesperson for COP26 Coalition. On Wednesday, he ripped up his prepared remarks about the COP26 “cover decision” and instead brought a message from the climate activists on the streets to the high-level session.

ASAD REHMAN: I had speech prepared to deliver in relation to the cover decision, but, frankly, I know it’s going to fall on deaf ears, so I won’t bother. The richest people have refused to pay their fair share of moral and political responsibilities. 26 COPs contain their broken promises. The empty press releases of polluting firms are no longer fooling anyone. COVIDNet zero 2050 and vaccine inequity are two recent examples of those who deliberately sacrifice the poor to make a profit.

While we may be angry and frustrated, there is still hope. We know it’s ordinary people who change history. We will change history. The era is over for injustice, Chair. These oppressive systems will be eliminated with the Global Green New Deal. It will guarantee that everyone has the right to live in dignity and harmony with the planet. Thank you, Chair.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Asad Rehman, executive director of War on Want, addressing the U.N. climate assembly. Kevin Anderson, can you talk more about this topic? George, Asad and many other climate activists are talking about the issue of wealth. You say per capita is a flawed metric, as most polluting industries have been moved to developing nations so it’s not reflective of the rich nations’ emissions. Let’s not forget this.

KEVIN ANDERSON: Yeah, I mean, that’s a really key issue. And I think if I focus in here on the U.K., where I — it’s a place, obviously, I know much better — that what we’ve done in the U.K., we’ve closed down a lot of our industry, and then we import the manufactured goods from elsewhere in the world. We then turn our backs on those other parts of this world and blame them with the emissions in making the goods we are enjoying. And that’s everything from our electronic goods to parts for our cars. It’s our clothes. The U.K. has effectively turned to a banking culture and a bar, and outsourced virtually everything else. And so, when we’re looking at our total amount of emissions, we have to take account of the carbon footprint of our lifestyles, and that does include the emissions that are associated with things that we import and export.

If you consider that, you will find that wealthy countries have a greater carbon footprint than those who only use energy within their borders. And I think it’s really key, again, when we think about these issues of equity, that we take this, what’s often referred to as a consumption-based accounting method — we take that into account, because it is unfair to be penalizing poor parts of the world for their making things to help us have a better quality of life over here. When we do this, the challenges become even more daunting in terms of what we must do and it also brings out the equity issues, the disparity among the richer and the poorer parts.

But I also think, on the equity point, it’s really worth bringing out that it’s not as if everyone in the U.K. is even. There isn’t just one public in the U.K. There are many publics in the U.K. There were those of us who were the wealthy ones in our own country that are responsible for the lion’s share emissions within the U.K. That will be true for the U.S., for Germany, for Japan, Australia. There are large areas of the country that are both average and below-average consumers in all of our countries. And for them, the response to climate change is very different from those of us who, in our own countries, are responsible for the lion’s share of emissions. Therefore, I believe we must distinguish between countries and within countries.

My concern is this: Who are those who frame the climate debates? They’re the climate scientists and the academics. They’re the entrepreneurs, the business leaders, the journalists, the barristers. They’re all the people that are in the very high-emitting category. So that’s how we frame the debate. And equity is never at the core of any debate. And regardless of our maths or our moral — sorry, regardless of our moral position, the maths tell us if we are to deliver on the commitments, then equity has to be a key part of our responses. We don’t talk about it because we are part of the high-emitting category.

AMY GOODMAN:Kevin, you haven’t flown in years. We found out that you had taken a train to interview you at the climate summits. You say it’s a great way to get work done, finish reports, etc. You also use the term “zero carbon” rather than “net zero.” Yesterday was Transportation Day. I believe Pete Buttigieg (transportation secretary) spoke from the United States. Also, you have the China-U.S. surprise declaration. I’m wondering if you can talk about zero carbon and also whether you feel China gets a disproportionate percentage of the blame?

KEVIN ANDERSON:Yes. Well, this expression “net zero,” to me, this is the most damning part of COP26, but it’s not just happening here. If you went back a few COPs ago, you would never hear the expression “net zero.” It’s really emerged as the challenges got harder, and that’s been that, actually, the policies need to be put in place to bring down emissions today. Because our policymakers are too weak and lack the imagination and courage to do that, what we have done is develop this term “net zero,” which allows us to move the burden in reducing emissions from today out to future generations — literally, out to 2050 and beyond. So, everyone is now using this expression “net zero.” You can be a net zero oil company. You can be net zero in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Norway, the U.K., or the U.S. It’s vacuous. It’s completely meaningless. When you unpick what’s behind net zero, I mean, all it is, I often say, is it’s Latin for kicking the can down the road. It’s passing the burden on to the next generation.

It is disturbing to me that many academics have embraced this net zero rhetoric. So we are not looking at the sort of changes that we need to make to — as George said earlier, we need to rapidly phase out our fossil fuel consumption. But you don’t have to do that if you’ve got net zero, because you can kind of unburden the fossil fuels, and our children will find technologies to suck the CO2 out of the air in years to come. That’s our hope. That’s our way of delaying the burden of mitigation from this generation onto the next generation. There are multiple ways that net zero is doing this, but that’s the most obvious one — these future technologies that we are relying on. All of our scenarios, in every of the IPCCIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has scenarios that outline what we should do to combat climate change. They rely on either technology or nature-based solutions which can also be equally dangerous for removing carbon dioxide in the future. This is an extremely dangerous reliance.

China is a high emitter of radiation, evidently. As we all know, it’s the largest emitter on the globe. But, of course, it has a population of about 1.3 billion people, so roughly, I think, three to four times that — four times that, I think, of the U.S. Its emissions per capita are still only, I think, just a little over one-third of the U.S. And we put a lot of responsibility on China, saying, “Well, look at its very high emissions.” They do burn a lot of coal, but I require their coal to be burned so that we can smelt the aluminium so I can make my Apple lap book — notebook out of it. Look at the equipment that we’re using. Many of it is made from metals that were manufactured in China. And then we blame them because they’re using lots of high-carbon energy to produce those materials.

China must abandon these. It must rapidly get rid of its deeply embedded and rich fossil fuel industry. Because it is very adept at making these rapid technological shifts, it has the potential for this. But we must not continue to blame China for these manufactured goods that we’re using. We need to work together. And perhaps if there is anything to come out of Biden and China’s discussions here, maybe there is something in there about: How do we facilitate the parts of the world that are the manufacturing base for the rest of us? How can they make a swift shift away from fossil-fuels?

NERMEEN SHAIKH:George Monbiot – Could you comment on Kevin Anderson’s statement about this category of net zero? Then, talk about what alternatives to fossil fuels are to oil, gas and coal. Also, what do you think are the most efficient and probable, which includes nuclear?

GEORGE MONBIOT:Kevin is right about net zero. It’s a way of delaying hard choices. It’s a way of passing them on to future generations of politicians. And that’s what has been happening for the past 30 years. We’ve done it with different terminology. We haven’t used that language, but it’s all been about delay and deferring and leaving the problem for somebody else to tidy up. And net zero is just a continuation of this catastrophic process. That’s why we’re now faced with such an incredibly tight window in which to make effective change.

But we can make the change. I mean, just as there are tipping points in ecosystems, potentially catastrophic ones that we don’t want to pass, there can be positive tipping points in society and in politics, where we can very rapidly change the way that we produce our energy, change the way that we use our energy, change the way that we live, which is also essential, because, as Kevin says, you know, it’s not just a question of how we produce this great tidal wave of consumer goods, but why we are producing this great tidal wave of consumer goods. Let’s stop. Let’s just stop doing it. And let’s find other ways of measuring quality of life, other than being flooded by this great tide of plastic and metal and electronics, 99% of which we simply do not need to live a good life.

So, having made that decision, we then say, “Right. So how do we power this?” And absolutely, we need those renewables. We need the sun. We need the sun. We should not disregard other forms of clean power, provided they are safe and appropriate. Different types will be safe and suitable for different purposes and locations around the world. But I am — I remain very interested in fourth-generation nuclear technologies, small modular reactors of different kinds, some of which could make a very important contribution. And I’m particularly dismayed by what’s going on in Germany, where, because of their nuclear shutdown, they’re ramping up their coal production. And they’re burning more of this particularly filthy form of coal, lignite, in order to create the space to shut down nuclear. So —

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 10 seconds, but —

GEORGE MONBIOT: — you’re shutting down a low-carbon technology in the middle of a climate emergency.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 10 seconds, but I want to get Kevin Anderson’s response. Are you pro-nuclear, even if it’s what he calls, George calls, “fourth-generation”?

KEVIN ANDERSON: Yeah, I’m agnostic about nuclear power. My preference would always be conservation first, then energy efficiency, and then the renewables — basically, solar and wind, tidal, or whatever they may be. However, if we can’t meet our energy demand, then I prefer nuclear to carbon storage. This is a problem that I believe is real. So, I would prefer nuclear to that.

AMY GOODMAN:We must let it be. George Monbiot and Kevin Anderson, thank you so very much. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.