The main issues
The Human Cost of Poverty and Climate Change
Indifference is an indicator of a lack of conscience. Indifference has always frightened me. Indifference is a perfect breeding ground for hatred. Indifference allows politics of hate to flourish. And that lays the groundwork for bigotry, racism and hate to seem reasonable to ordinary human beings. The results of politics of hate are always horrifying and inevitably catastrophic.
- Lily Brett, grazkunst 03.2017, p. 9
The greatest damage arises from the silent majority that -- just wanting to survive -- toes the line and goes along with everything. (Der größte Schaden entsteht durch die schweigende Mehrheit, die nur überleben will, sich fügt und alles mitmacht.)
- Sophie Scholl, victim of the death penalty, 1943.
In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
The closing window of opportunity
In a decade or two, or perhaps just a few years, when global warming is a serious problem everywhere, and most people (not just the crazy "alarmists" and "doomers") are talking about the point of no return, and we are all mourning what has been irretrievably lost, while trying to deal with the ever-increasing global chaos, I will look at my friends, family, and academic colleagues, and they will look at me, and we will all ask ourselves: How could good people have been so evil? How could generous people have been so selfish? How could intelligent people have been so stupid? How could kind people have been so cruel? How could courageous people have been so timid?
By then, it will be too late and too tragic for "I told you so". The window of opportunity will have closed. The irreversible damage will be done. We won't be able to turn back the clock and try again.
My children will ask me: Why didn't you do something? Surely you knew? Why didn't you talk to your family, friends, and colleagues? And I will say: I did know. And I did talk. Again and again, in different ways. But even the nicest, kindest, most honorable people were not listening. Or if they were listening, they were not responding.
Considering the consequences, this has been the most shocking experience of my life. And the shock is ongoing. My friends, family, and colleagues will read the previous paragraphs and still won't get it. Nor will they get it after reading this paragraph, or the next one.
Right now, we can still do something. Will we? Or will we not?
We urgently need radical change on two levels: personal and collective (government, corporate). Both at once! The corporate level is more important because corporations got us into this mess during decades of denial. The responsible CEOs should be tried for crimes against humanity. But even if the fossil corporations suddenly got their act together and went completely sustainable, we would still be left with the problem that individuals are burning large amounts of fossil fuels in their daily lives. The sum of individual emissions is far too high.
It's necessary but not sufficient for corporations to do everything in their power to reduce emissions. Individuals also have to reduce. This is simply a matter of arithmetic: if we add up the emissions of individuals and get a large number, we have a problem.
So let's start with the personal level, because that is where our power lies. We can easily and quickly change many aspects of our personal behavior, and talk to other people about doing the same so that it becomes a collective effort. When many people do that, they will infect others with their positive action. Political opposition to fossil-fueled capitalism will grow, which will feed into corporate-governmental level. That may sound like a long shot, but what other chance do we have?
The personal level includes social movements that, unlike governments and corporations, are not hierarchically structured. A social movement is a network that is powered by grassroots individual action and motivation. Past movements have fought for and achieved civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, and the rights of specific groups in specific countries.
We need a new global children's rights movement -- one that not only talks about a child's right to care, food, shelter, and education, but also to political and environmental stability and hence quality of life in the future. One that not only talks but also acts, showing people how to reduce their personal emissions and then actually doing that. The Wikipedia page on that topic currently doesn't mention climate change (5 January 2020), nor does the Declaration of the Rights of the Child -- not surprisingly, since it was written in 1959.
Saying goodbye to the Big Four: Reproduction, flying, driving, meat
Currently, the average person is causing 5 tonnes of CO2 to be emitted every year (more in richer countries, less in poorer). About half of that is being absorbed by plant life (on land and in oceans). The other half will stay in the atmosphere and oceans for centuries.
We urgently have to stop that other half from getting into the atmosphere and oceans. Therefore, we have to halve the mean global CO2 footprint. To do that, we need a plan that will actually work. Here are two possibilities:
The main contributors to the carbon footprints of people in rich countries can be calculated and are well-known. There are four of them: having children, flying, driving, and eating meat (more). Let's call them the Big Four. The best way to reduce personal carbon footprints is to avoid all of these, as far as possible. If a lot of people did that we would be well on the way to a solution.
Having children. People are scared to talk about this topic, but let us be clear: We are talking about children's rights. Children are the most valuable thing that we have. And that is the reason we need to stop reproducing -- to protect the rights of those children that are already born. If you are likely to become a parent in the next few years -- whether for the first time or again -- by far the best way to reduce your effective carbon footprint, and in that way to express your love for all children everywhere, is to change your plans. But there are two important caveats. First, this is a personal decision. No-one has the right to pressure others into avoiding reproduction, and no-one should suffer as a consequence of becoming a parent. Second, the children of environmental campaigners are likely to become environmental campaigners themselves, and every one of them counts!
Flying. The effect of flying on climate is far greater than most people realise and it is increasing faster than any other major contribution (more). Aviation is currently contributing 3% of global CO2 emissions. Due to other greenhouse gases, the contribution to global warming is about twice that. These figures are increasing by 5% per year with no end in sight. Less than 10% of all people fly. For those who fly, flying typically represents half of their personal CO2 footprint. Half! But emissions must fall in all sectors, and individuals with the largest footprints must make the biggest cuts. Biofuels are no alternative: producing them means destroying rainforests and agricultural land. Electric flying has a big environmental cost of its own and cannot scale up. Therefore, most flying will have to stop. Of those who fly, almost everyone is currently (2020) in denial about this, but that does not make it any less true. Since climate change is a matter of life and death for billions of people, flying is only justified if necessary to save lives.
Driving. Electric cars are a step in the right direction, provided the electricity is from renewable sources. But the emissions produced during production and the environmental impact of the batteries mean that step is not especially big. The situation is similar for solar-powered hydrogen cars. The best solution is to stop driving. Cycling and walking can make you healthier and happier! We should especially avoid driving alone or driving daily, and it is obviously wrong to do both. Exceptions: People with disabilities, small children, heavy loads.
Meat. The optimal amount of meat and dairy consumption on a sustainable planet is not zero, but perhaps 10% of the current level. To get anywhere near that goal, a majority of people will have to go vegan. The situation will be much improved if many people cut down on meat, avoiding juicy steaks and instead adding a little bit of meat to otherwise vegetarian food (more). Whether you do it for your health or for the world's children, the result is the same.
We also need to make buildings more energy-efficient, use less power for heating and cooling, avoid using drying machines when clothes can be hung out to dry, and so on. But these are not the main sources of personal emissions in rich countries. If we are serious about reducing global emissions, we must start with the Big Four. Recycling and avoiding plastic are also very important, but they are mainly about biodiversity, not climate. They are equally important, but different.
For individuals, the bottom line is that we all have to drastically reduce or completely give up reproducing, flying, driving, and meat.
Not surprisingly, we don't want to give up the Big Four. We like them too much. So we start looking around for reasons why the above arguments might be incorrect. It's a natural response. Let's look at some of the most common counterarguments.
Some object that it is impossible for the average person in a rich country to give up reproducing, flying, driving, and meat, or to come anywhere near that. Therefore, the claim that we must do that cannot be correct. But that is not logical. Whether a claim is true or not does not depend on whether it is possible. Those are two different things. Whether this particular claim is true depends on (i) how much greenhouse gas people are producing, (ii) how much of that is being absorbed (e.g. by plants), (iii) how much is necessary to cause a global catastrophe and (iv) some simple arithmetic. It follows that IF humanity is to have a reasonable future, or any future at all, THEN most people in the rich world must seriously reduce or give up the Big Four. Period.
In fact, the average person in a rich country can give up reproducing, flying, driving, and meat -- remarkably easily. For many people, it is simply a matter of stopping, like smoking one's last cigarette. Regarding driving, in most cases public transport is available. It may not be convenient, but it is not impossible. In general, there will be different consequences for different people, and we will all have to find our own path. In wartime, the average civilian often faced bigger challenges and survived. Today, we need to radically reform tax-welfare systems to eliminate poverty and enable everyone to do without fossil fuels. This is an essential aspect of system change that is urgently required. But even without such a reform almost everyone can do what is required. The question is, are we willing to do it? Said another way: Do we love our children? Do we care about children? Do we care about other people?
Some say it is unrealistic to expect people to do these things. Of course, they are right. But the alternative is even more unrealistic. What could be more unrealistic than self-destruction?
Some object that there are other ways of getting greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. There are, but none are realistic. So far, no method has been discovered that would sustainably and safely absorb the required amounts of CO2 or slow down global warming by any other method without existentially dangerous side-effects. In the absence of a miracle, nothing else will work. That being the case, nothing could be more immoral than relying on a low-probability surprise solution that will somehow turn up in the nick of time, Hollywood style. There are good partial solutions, of course. Reforestation and rewilding are very important and should be promoted on a massive global scale, but even that will not be enough. Research on biological and technological solutions is ongoing and equally important. But the basic situation is not going to change in a hurry.
Some argue that governments, corporations, and deniers got us into this mess, therefore it is up to them to get us out of it. Therefore, we don't have to reduce our personal emissions. Again, this is not logical. Of course the climate-denying corporate CEOs are primarily responsible for the climate crisis and therefore should be first to change, and of course the political-corporate transition is urgent. But regardless of whether or how fast that transition happens, individuals will still have personal carbon footprints, and those footprints will still have to be reduced to achieve the required global reduction.
Taken together, these objections and counterarguments are a form of climate denial. They do not deny the reality of climate change and its human causes. Instead, they deny the availability and efficacy of solutions. Like other forms of denial, they tend to protect the fossil fuel industry from loss of profits, as if that were more important than everything else.
Astonishingly, some people don't care whether our children have a future or not. (For examples of such people, just turn on your TV.) What if those people simply ignored this message? Do they have that right? Clearly not, because there is no longer any doubt that producing excessive emissions is infringing the basic rights of other people. Therefore, there is only one morally acceptable course of action, and that is for everyone to do what is necessary to save our environments and ecosystems for coming generations. No exceptions! (Why should anyone be exempt? There is no clear criterion for exemption.)
If I am starting to sound bossy, please accept my apologies. My intention is not to tell anyone what to do. Nor am I playing god or trying to exercise personal power. I am simply stating a conclusion that follows logically from a set of uncontroversial premises.
Smart, well-meaning people will read these lines, understand them, and (regardless of whether they agree) refuse to change. In an attempt to alleviate their guilt, they will invent arbitrary justifications for not changing. I know, because I am surrounded by such smart, well-meaning people. Denial is everywhere. If that is not evidence of humanity's inherent selfishness and stupidity, I don't know what is. What can I say? I am not trying to offend someone or start a fight. Nor am I interested in "shaming" anyone. I am just trying to raise awareness. Everyone agrees about the importance of defending the inalienable rights of young people. That means telling the truth about climate change.
Nor am I claiming to be perfect. I decided recently never to fly again and it seems likely that I will stick to that promise, but who knows, something unexpected might happen. Besides, I have flown an awful lot in my life, which puts me high on the guilty list. I don't own a car, but I do have a valid driver's license and occasionally borrow a car from a company or friend. I regularly eat small amounts of meat. Nobody's perfect! The main thing is to genuinely decide (or try) to get rid of the biggest sources of personal emissions.
The earth's surface is sick. The diagnosis: cancer.
Many of us already know that we have to give up the Big Four, but something inside us is resisting. Strongly! Where is the resistance coming from? Perhaps an analogy will help.
The existential threat of global warming involves self-reinforcing feedback loops. Forest fires produce CO2, which in turn causes more warming and reduced rainfall in dry areas, which in turn causes more forest fires. Melting ice changes the color of the earth's surface from white to blue, causing more heat from the sun to be absorbed and more ice to melt (albedo). Melting permafrost causes greenhouse gases to be released, which causes more warming, causing more permafrost to melt. Hot weather means more air conditioning, which means more electricity, more emissions, and more hot weather. The feedbacks are called "positive" because the feedback reinforces the original process, as opposed to "negative feedbacks" that slow it down. All parts of the atmosphere are connected, so these processes interact with each other.
This is already happening, and the process is already accelerating. At some time in the future, global warming will continue even after all human emissions have stopped, leading to warming of the order of 10°C, which will surely mean the end of humanity. To prevent that from happening, all human emissions must be stopped urgently.
Cancer is similar. It starts with benign tumours that do not spread and can be treated. As tumours become malignant, the rate of cell division increases, and the cancer spreads to other parts of the body (metastasis). At some point, treatment is no longer effective and care becomes palliative. Positive feedback processes play an important role in this ominous development (more). That's why early diagnosis and prompt treatment are so important.
Our beautiful blue planet got an early diagnosis when global warming was discovered and understood in detail several decades ago. But treatment has been consistently denied. If things don't change radically, the cancer of global warming will bring about the extinction of most species including humans. Climatic metastasis is already underway.
Eating a steak is like offering the world a puff on your cigarette. It won't hurt the world to take that puff. Actually, it's quite fun. You'll have to do it many times before there is a measurable effect. At least that is what we think, but we are wrong. In fact, every single cigarette is bad: there is no healthy level of smoking. The same applies to CO2 emissions: every emitted tonne is contributing to the future global catastrophe (link).
Continuing the analogy, driving around in a car for an hour or two is like offering the world a cigarette. A whole one, this time. Taking a flight in economy class is like offering the world a packet of cigarettes. Flying in a private jet is like offering a carton. Bringing a new human into the world in a rich country, where personal carbon footprints are far too high, is like opening a tobacco shop. Don't get me wrong: a baby is the most wonderful and valuable thing. But "the road to hell is paved with good intentions".
The solution, as we know, is to give up. It's very simple, and there is no other solution. Again, the comparison with smoking and lung cancer is interesting. In many ways we are addicted to fossil fuels. We know we should give up, but we are very creative when it comes to inventing reasons not to do so (climate denial, addiction denial). Strategies for giving up smoking include:
At the same time, humanity is suffering from another kind of cancer. As George Monbiot brilliantly explains in this video, "capitalism is the planet's cancer, and just like cancer in the human body, it has to be cut out“.
The good news is that many of us used to smoke, gave up, and never looked back. We were confronted with the psychological barrier of addiction and somehow managed to break through it. If we can do that, we can give up fossil fuels.
As for capitalism, it needs to be tamed by following its own principles. First, capitalism can only work in a democratically regulated marketplace, in which participants obey the law. That counts out tax havens and much else. Second, the marketplace should establish the true cost and benefit of products. If capitalism does not recognize the true environmental cost of fossil fuels, it will destroy itself and everything else with it. Third, actors in the marketplace should compete on a level playing field. Their success should be determined by their good ideas and hard work and not by privilege. To solve this problem, we need universal basic income.
How will it work?
Giving up the Big Four is not as hard as it sounds. It's a change of lifestyle and a change of attitude. It's about finding fun, happiness and fulfilment in new ways.
Governments can and should help. Public education campaigns (more) might for example explain that riding bikes, taking trains, and eating vegetarian are fun and good for your health and happiness.
We won't have to give up everything at once. The main thing is to make sustainable progress toward lower personal emissions. We all have different constraints and can draw up own own personal plan.
Political change: Bringing back democracy and honesty
It is essential, but not enough, to change our lifestyles. We must also strive for political and social change.
According to IPCC (special report 2018), humanity has until 2030 to roughly halve global emissions and until 2050 to eliminate them (net zero). If we don't achieve that, the probability will increase that global warming will take on a life of its own due to self-reinforcing feedbacks and humans will be powerless to stop it, even after all emissions stop. That is a very real possibility toward the end of the century and it could lead to human extinction in the following century, following a long period of unprecedented (and presently unimaginable) global turmoil, conflict, and suffering.
To achieve this, we somehow need to convince powerful governments and corporations to make quite radical changes. How can that be done?
Each of us has many relationships with individuals and groups. We also have a relationship with humanity. Relationships are successful if partners seriously consider each other's needs. For that to work,
In the following, I have tried to formulate briefly what I want from influential people such as politicians, corporation CEOs, and the very rich. All of these requests are urgent; the survival of everyone, including the rich, depends on them.
What I want from the rich and powerful
Value human life. Every human has the same inherent value, regardless of wealth, cultural background, skin color, gender, ability, and so on. The value of a child is equal to or greater than that of an adult because a child that dies loses more life-years. Protecting human life should be our top priority. That includes protecting the earth's complex systems that make human life possible. Therefore, ecocide should be part of national law, everywhere.
Stop the killing. Half of the world agrees that the death penalty is never justified. That's a great start. No-one should be killed for any reason. The only exceptions apply at the very start and the very end of life (legally and ethically controlled abortion and euthanasia). But many governments are still killing their own citizens. China and the USA should agree to end the death penalty, inspiring the world to follow suit. Their leaders could actually just do that. In addition, enormous numbers of people are being killed violently (e.g., Iraq). Military "defence forces" should stick to true defence and peace keeping. International arms trading should be universally banned -- it is not enough to stop illegal trading. If you want peace, make peace. World leaders should be demanding that from their international colleagues. We should be electing them on that basis.
Recognize the urgency of the climate crisis. We are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event. A million species are at risk, and one of them is Homo sapiens. The global climate system is approaching multiple tipping points, after which the damage will be irreversible. Enormous areas will become uninhabitable due to rising sea levels, unprecedented droughts, heat waves, forest fires, storms, and water/food shortages. The details may be hard to predict, but scientists agree about the general tendency and extreme urgency.
Stop premature deaths due to poverty and climate change. Roughly ten million people are dying prematurely every year in connection with poverty. In addition, roughly ten million future people are being killed indirectly every year by current greenhouse gas emissions. Every 1000 tonnes of carbon burned today is causing a future premature death (more), and altogether ten billion tonnes are burned every year. In this way, richer people are currently causing the premature deaths of twenty million poorer people every year. That's more than the death rate due to violence during the Second World War. No one is intending to kill anyone (premature future deaths are an inevitable future byproduct of burning fossil fuels) but to the extent that these cause-effect relationships are obvious (and they surely are) we are talking about unprecedented negligence. This indirect, unintentional, mass killing has to stop. Poverty can and must be alleviated globally. All greenhouse emissions can and must stop. Not in 2050, not in ten years, not even next year. Now! What are we waiting for? Even the 1.5°C goal (IPCC; Paris) is not ambitious enough. Alleviating poverty means many things, including closing tax havensand stopping the exploitation of developing countries by multinational corporations. The Sustainable Development Goals need much more financial support from rich countries. Most richer countries agreed long ago to contribute 0.7% GDP to international development aid and then failed to do that. Within countries, tax-welfare systems need to be reformed to alleviate poverty and reduce the wealth gap.
Reduce emissions and convert to sustainable energy as quickly as possible without causing additional deaths. In rich countries at least, reducing energy consumption is even more important than the conversion to sustainable energy. For example, houses should be energy-efficient and located not far from workplaces. Beyond that, all those currently working in the fossil fuel industry need new jobs, e.g. in sustainable energy; the world's richest people are in a good position to finance the transition. Governments can and should demand the finance. The transition should not cause power shortages that cause additional human deaths (e.g., hospitals should not run out of power). The main point is to minimize the number of preventable human deaths. We urgently need new leaders to motivate and organize this massive project. Ban all new fossil fuel projects and close down all existing ones. Tax flying, gradually increasing the tax until global emissions from flying start to fall steadily. Same for meat consumption. Alleviate poverty at the same time by returning part of the proceeds to the people ("fee and dividend"). Ban private jets, and ban any advertising that encourages people to burn large amounts of fossil fuels, e.g. ads for cars or distant holidays. Corporations, businesses, and universities should stop funding flying for any purpose and use electronic media instead. Those who fly should pay for their own tickets. Offsetting should be required by law. As respected places of independent learning and freedom of speech, universities should be leading the world out of this crisis (at the moment, up to one half of the carbon emissions of a university are from flying). Governments should be using proceeds from environmental taxes to build fast trains that criss-cross all continents, powered by electricity from sustainable sources, and to revive international and intercontinental commercial sailing, supported by solar-powered electric motors. They should be financing the end of deforestation and the reforestation of a billion hectares. They should be subsidizing the construction of carbon-neutral buildings, and radical improvements in public transport and bicycle infrastructure. All emissions sectors should have legally enforceable plans in place to halve emissions by 2025 and reach net zero by 2030; from a human rights perspective, anything else is too slow.
Restart democracy by reducing the wealth gap and eliminating poverty. Climate change may be largely caused by capitalism, but a communist revolution is not the answer -- the risk of massive violence and corruption is too great. We need to transform and tame capitalism. Democracy is being undermined, both globally and within countries, by the rising gap between rich and poor. It may be ok for the rich to have ten times the income or wealth of the poor, but not a hundred or a thousand times, let alone a million. One solution is wage transparency: all tax declarations in all countries should be published in the internet, to help reduce pay gaps (gender, "race") and tax evasion. Another form of transparency is a radically simplified tax-welfare system that eliminates poverty and reduces the wealth gap. We need more progressive taxes, those that are paid mainly by the rich (wealth taxes, environmental taxes, financial transaction taxes) in every country (internationally harmonized). We don't need regressive taxes that mainly affect the poor, such as consumption tax (value-added tax, VAT) on everyday non-luxury goods. People cannot contribute or adapt to massive social changes if they are preoccupied with making ends meet; for this and other reasons we need a universal, unconditional basic income that practically eliminates poverty. This is possible in an country by drawing a straight line through the current complex relationship between income before tax/welfare and income after tax/welfare (details here). Then and only then will it be appropriate to introduce and/or gradually increase carbon taxes. In the US, Bernie Sanders has shown that people will vote for changes of this kind if they are clearly explained.
Reduce population growth. While reducing or eliminating poverty is necessary for ethical and humanitarian reasons, and anyone who claims to be anti-racist can only agree, it is also the best way to reduce population growth in developing countries. That is essential to get climate change under control and reduce the magnitude of future humanitarian crises. African's population is currently expected to triple, reaching 4 billion by 2100, with unimaginably catastrophic consequences. We must reduce population growth while at the same time respecting human rights, especially the rights of women and children (no-one anywhere should be penalized for having children). Birth rates can be reduced by improving education (for girls and boys equally), standard of living, and public awareness. An unconditional basic income or pension can alleviate the fear of poverty in old age. Population growth must also be reduced in richer countries where individual carbon footprints are high. Regardless of socioeconomic status, there are two good reasons for not having children: they will not have a rosy future and they will further increase emissions. If you love children, don't have any.
Consider the true selfish interests of the rich. For better or for worse, that is our only politically realistic option. Our world is also their world and their children's world. There is indeed no planet B, and no amount of money can change that. At the rate we are going, in a few decades civilization and global capitalism will be collapsing, wars (like hurricanes) will be getting more frequent and more serious, and money could become worthless. The rich will lose their quality of life. When the Titanic sank, rich and poor died together. Today, the rich can serve their own long-term interests by promoting political changes that reduce poverty and the wealth gap in exchange for a significant proportion of their wealth. Money can indeed buy love! After the transition, the rich will still be rich. Applied fairly, wealth taxes will hardly change the pecking order of wealth. As more rich people realise this, regarding it is a new challenge to their entrepreneurial skills and their ability to "think big", more will join the global fight to save the global climate.
These are not radical demands. It is not "radical" to try to prevent mass suicide, generatiocide, or human extinction by the most reasonable and realistic means available.
The opinions expressed on this page are the authors' personal opinions.
Suggestions for improving or extending the content are welcome at email@example.com.
The aim of this page is to defend the basic rights of a billion people who are currently living in poverty in developing countries. That's a thousand million people! Their lives are threatened by a combination of poverty denial and climate denial. Poverty denial is denial that poverty is caused by the us, the rich. Climate denial is denial that climate change is caused by us, the rich.
All over the world, influential people are refusing to speak openly and honesty about poverty and climate. If things don't improve, hundreds of millions of people will die in coming decades as a result of the negligence of the rich countries. Every human life has the same value, and every unnecessary death is a tragedy.
I am one of the lucky ones. By accident of birth, I am part of today's western middle class. By comparison to all other people who have every lived anywhere on this planet, we of the western middle class are living in luxury, like French royalty before the revolution.
Like French royalty before the revolution, we are being warned, but we are not responding. Most of us who read the previous paragraphs (and countless similar texts) are doing nothing (or almost nothing, which is little better) to change the situation within our sphere of influence, which is generally much bigger than we think. We then pretend to be innocent, which is obviously untrue. Logically and objectively, this "normal" behavior can be described as stupid, evil, or both.
Please excuse me for trying to tell the truth about this. Honesty can be a bit of a shock, I know. The rational response is not denial or guilt. The rational response is to act.