climate change poverty race social justice wealth

How the world’s richest destroyed the climate

As longer term readers will be aware, the original title of this blog was Make Wealth History. I chose the name to highlight the fact that a fair and sustainable world is impossible if all the attention is on lifting the poorest out of poverty. There isn’t the ecological space for everyone on earth to enjoy a Western consumer lifestyle. Those in the richest countries have to shrink their consumption in order to make room.

The role of the richest in environmental destruction has rarely been presented as graphically as it is in Oxfam’s latest report. Confronting Carbon Inequality investigates the last 25 years of accumulating carbon emissions and maps it onto income brackets.

The headline finding is that the top 1% are responsible for double the emissions of the poorest 50% of humanity. The climate was not destroyed to lift people out of poverty, or because people in Africa had too many babies. It was destroyed so that the world’s richest could fly more and drive bigger cars.

This is why it is vital to understand climate change as a justice issue.

Since the majority of that poorest 50% are people of colour, and the majority of that 1% are white, it has to be understood as a matter of race as well.

Graphs like this make a mockery of the idea that responsibility for solving the climate crisis lies predominantly with developing countries. Middle income countries make up 40% of the world’s population, and 41% of the cumulative emissions. While there is an obvious need for those countries to peak and reduce their emissions, their share of the overall total is proportional. The wealthiest 10%, on the other hand, have 52% of the total.

For my generation, climate change is the front line of global justice. This is the civil rights movement, Apartheid, the struggle to end slavery. It is on this question that future generations will judge us.

45 comments

  1. Jeremy I recently got into an argument on this article regarding China. I pointed out sure we can indeed point to the morbidly affluent and acknowledge China is doing many good things but at least to my mind it isn’t enough for the Chinese to say we are doing great things the rich in these countries are the real culprits don’t ask or expect us to up our game. On the one hand, reading climate justice they are right but on the other hand, we are running out of time and no country is anywhere near doing what is necessary. Reminds me of a family friend who nearly killed herself when she had the right of way with a large truck turned in front of it and nearly had an accident. Sure she was legally in the right but being right about something when it can still end up killing you isn’t much of a help.

    1. Of course, in no way is China innocent. One way of thinking of it is of a crime already committed, and a crime in progress. Neither side can point the finger at the other.

      What I regularly see and hear from people who want to talk about developing countries is a narrow focus on what is happening now, and not on the crimes already committed. The other factor in China’s favour is that it is acting on climate change, albeit slowly, whereas several big emitters in the West are more or less ignoring it entirely, the US in particular.

      1. Well, I was saying they need to do better and Xi has just said peak by 2030 and neutral by 2060. I hope someone can crunch the numbers and see whether that will be fast enough?

        1. I do suppose there is the other problem of responsibility and freeloading. If the rich won’t give up their carbon-rich lifestyles and expect China and the developing world to do more than their fair share do the Chinese tell them to bugger off, not increase their effort and we all burn? I do suppose there is a difference saying there is a need to do better and telling them THEY need to do better?

      2. The other factor in China’s favour is that it is acting on climate change…

        That isn’t really accurate. China emitted 11.5 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2019 – i.e. 61% of the target the IPCC in its 2018 ‘special report’ says the entire would should be aiming for by 2030 if it’s to avoid potential catastrophe: https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2019/05/SR15_SPM_version_report_LR.pdf . Bad enough – but now we learn from President’s Xi’s recent announcement to the UN that, far from cutting those emissions, it plans to increase them up to a ‘peak’ sometime between now and 2030.

        … several big emitters in the West are more or less ignoring it entirely, the US in particular.

        That isn’t really accurate either. See this report: https://www.iea.org/articles/global-co2-emissions-in-2019. An extract:

        The United States saw the largest decline in energy-related CO2 emissions in 2019 on a country basis – a fall of 140 Mt, or 2.9%, to 4.8 Gt. US emissions are now down almost 1 Gt from their peak in the year 2000, the largest absolute decline by any country over that period.

        So which ‘big emitters in the West’ did you have in mind?

        1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2542519620301960 I think historical emissions should also play their part as when a country peaks and goes carbon neutral from the IPCC by 2070 for a 2C limit and we should also consider at that and its stage of development that country is at. BTW You can kiss 1.5 goodbye & emitters well in absolute and per capita, the US is still up there. https://www.economicshelp.org/blog/10296/economics/top-co2-polluters-highest-per-capita/

          1. Simon: my post merely pointed out that Jeremy’s comments about China ‘acting on climate change’ and ‘several big emitters in the West’ (especially the US) ignoring the climate issue were inaccurate. That’s all. Historic responsibility is a wholly different matter – to which I’ll refer in my response to your second reply to me.

  2. Having reflected on my book “Towards Oikos” published Oct 2019 (main themes being inequality and climate crisis), I have come to realise that I was edging towards accepting the ideas of the ever more prominent “degrowth movement” (the late David Graeber, and Jason Hickel, George Monbiot, Katherine Trebeck, Kate Raworth, Roman Krznaric etc). My book also mentions briefly the concept of a “World Parliament”. I feel I should have spent more detail and time on this concept. Perhaps it would be worthwhile to link the “degrowth movement” and the “World Parliament Movement” (lead by Andreas Bummel and democracywithoutborders.org) together to bring about real system change!

  3. Those in the richest countries have to shrink their consumption in order to make room.

    This focus on ‘countries’ is misleading. No one regards India as rich – indeed its per capita emissions at 1.9 ton CO2/cap are way below the global average of 4.93. But that hides an important reality. Most of India’s 1.3 billion population are desperately poor, but some 300 million are regarded as middle class – although they probably wouldn’t be so categorised by European standards. However about 90 million of them undoubtedly would – think for example of India’s booming electronics, space, defence, motor vehicle and movie industries and its highly-regarded science and medical institutions. (This article gives a taste of one consequence: http://tiny.cc/lctzsz.) Yet 90 million is greater than Germany’s population – and Germany, the source of 2% of global emissions, is obliged under the Paris Agreement to reduce its emissions whereas India (7% of global emissions) is not. What’s true of India is also true of other ‘developing’ countries with a wealthy middle class – countries such as South Korea, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Iran and Saudi Arabia. And of course China where consumerism is especially rampant, with people particularly eager to fly more and drive bigger cars. In total, there are in ‘developing’ countries (exempted under the Paris Agreement from any obligation to reduce their emissions) about 1.2 billion people (about the same as the combined populations of the North America and Europe) whose average per capita emissions is the same or greater than that of the EU. These people are a major part of the wealthiest 10% – and of course they’re people of colour.

    How should the fight for global justice take these facts into account?

    1. What about past emission facts? Having said that the is a point to be made about affluent consumers within a country even if it is developing. But you will hardly have them cutting back when the historical emitters and their rich give a big FU as well.

      1. Simon: in its 2018 ‘special report’ the IPCC stated that global GHG emissions must be reduced by 50% by 2030 if humanity is to avoid possibly catastrophic consequences. It didn’t say anything about that 50% being adjusted to take account of historic responsibility. Do you think it should have done?

        1. Robin I skimmed it but I thought that was talking about a 1.5 limit whereas it looks like China has gone for the 2 limit which many people think is more realistic.& no I asked someone who should know about such things and she said different countries had different dates regarding when they should go carbon neutral given their stage of development that could be argued is a proxy for past emissions. She may have misunderstood me or just be wrong.

          Regardless yes I do think past emissions linked to their current stage of development should factor in.It’s pretty hard to make a moral case that those countries that didn’t cause the problem should be held to the same sort of restrictions that the historical polluters have been.

          I would note that an article I skimmed to reference the fair share paper said that while China still was within in its fair share it is rapidly approaching using that up. It would be interesting to see how that plays into their recent commitments.

          & that other link I posted still showed the US is still up there both in absolute and per capital levels.

          1. Simon – the IPCC report was indeed about the 1.5ºC target. And it indicated that GHG emissions should be reduced by 50% by 2030 if humanity is to avoid possibly catastrophic consequences. In other words, if the IPCC’s got it right and irrespective of the target, humanity has in practice got only 9 years to take drastic action.

            In 2019, global emissions were 38 billion tonnes of CO2. Cutting that by 50% would be a mammoth undertaking. There simply wouldn’t be time to start arguing about responsibility for past emissions.

            China has made no emission reduction commitments.

            China emits by far the greatest share of absolute emissions (30% of the global total) and, although its per capita emissions are less than the US’s, they’re 26% greater than the EU’s.

  4. Robin, the Oxfam report isn’t about countries. It’s about income levels and includes the elites around the world that you mention. Well worth reading that.

    Where I’ve mentioned countries, it’s to contextualise Oxfam’s findings around existing agreements, which are for better or worse negotiated by nations. As we’ve been over before, historical emissions mean certain countries bear greater responsibility and need to move first. It’s only when those with larger cumulative emissions accept this responsibility that later developers are prepared to offer emissions cuts of their own. Otherwise they being asked to clean up somebody elses mess.

    Recent events bear this out. It’s only after a spate of net zero commitments across overdeveloped countries that China has made it’s own commitment for 2060.

  5. My simple point, Jeremy, is that, contrary to the impression you give in your article (e.g. your observation that ‘ the majority of that 1% are white’), there are at least as many wealthy – and consumer-oriented – people in the ‘developing’ world as there are in the West. And they are people of colour. Therefore the fight for global justice is considerably more complex than you seem to believe.

    Unfortunately perhaps, the theory that the West (responsible in your view for the bulk of historical emissions) must ‘move first’ has been tested and shown not to work. Since 2000, the West has reduced its emissions by 22% (from 11 billion tonnes p.a. to 9 billion today) whereas the rest of the world has, over the same period, increased its by 93% (from 15 billion tonnes p.a. in 2000 to 29 billion today).

    In his recent statement to the UN, President Xi spoke of an ‘aim’, not a ‘commitment’. In any case, it’s remarkable that commentators in the West are so keen to believe that a statement that China aims to do something many years from now is believable. Yet this is the same Xi who heads a country that, contrary to established international norms, is operating one of the most repressive regimes in the world – for example committing human rights outrages in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. In any case, China’s approval in the first six months of this year of more coal-fired capacity than during the whole of 2018 and 2019 combined is totally at odds with the clear example being set by the West. Moreover, Xi’s assertion in the same UN announcement that China will continue to increase its emissions in the immediate future (up to a ‘peak’ sometime between now and 2030) is especially relevant: China emitted 11.5 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2019 – i.e. 61% of the target the IPCC in its 2018 report said the entire would should be aiming for by 2030 if it’s to avoid potential catastrophe. Yet Xi tells us that China plans to increase those emissions! Following the West’s example? I don’t think so.

    PS: there’s no evidence for your claimed ‘spate of net zero commitments’. An analysis of this report (https://www.climatechangenews.com/2020/09/17/countries-net-zero-climate-goal/) reveals that only two countries, the UK and Sweden, have enshrined a ‘net-zero by 2050’ commitment into law.

      1. The global middle class is something of a myth…

        Hardly – the link I provided above (http://tiny.cc/lctzsz) indicates otherwise. As does the fact that, before the pandemic, major European tourist venues were inundated by huge numbers of fashionably-dressed Chinese. I met them in Dubrovnik, St Petersburg (the Hermitage Museum) and St Albans(!). And perhaps you’ve forgotten that over 30 ‘developing’ countries (including China) have greater per capita emissions than the EU: https://edgar.jrc.ec.europa.eu/overview.php?v=booklet2020&dst=CO2pc.

          1. Thanks for the useful link. But, contrary to your comment, I’m very aware of the complexity of China’s prosperity profile. What I suggest should be a concern is that the affluent sector of the population (located around Shanghai and the southern coastal cities) is less than half of China’s overall population. Yet the country’s average per capita emissions are already 26% greater than the EU’s. It’s a gap that’s going to increase as China becomes yet more affluent – and its emissions increase.

            The reality is that there’s a large and burgeoning consumer-oriented population in Southeast Asia in particular (note for example the references to South Korea in your linked article) that belies your comment that the climate justice issue should ‘be understood as a matter of race‘.

            PS: my reference to people buying expensive handbags was about super-rich Indian women – although no doubt rich Chinese women are just as eager to do so.

          2. For the sake of argument, let’s say you’re right and a vast over-consuming middle class in East Asia is also responsible for climate change. The most vulnerable are still in black Africa, where carbon footprints are minuscule. Ergo, still a matter of racial justice.

          3. True, Jeremy, your logic is impeccable. What I should have said is that the huge consumer-oriented population in Southeast Asia belies your claim that climate justice is about the harm done by white (‘the majority of that 1% are white‘) people to people of colour.

          4. If the top 1% of the world’s population was the only source of GHG emissions, you’d be right in suggesting that the harm is being done by white people. But, as I’ve shown, there are today vast and growing numbers of people in Southeast Asia whose lifestyle causes significant GHG emissions – possibly even more of such people than there are in North America and Europe. And these people are not white. You believe that ‘climate change is the front line of global justice‘ – a ‘matter of race‘ akin to civil rights, apartheid and slavery. But, as it’s not simply about white people harming people of colour, this issue is especially complex and nuanced – what’s often termed ‘a wicked problem’. I think we should be able to agree on that.

            PS: one complication for example is that there are still a lot of vulnerable people in Asia – especially in India; but also in China.

          5. I’ve spent the last three years thinking about this in order to write a book on it. So you won’t find me saying it’s simple and on that we can agree!

            There are a few reasons not to get hung up on China when thinking about the racism of climate change. First, China’s emissions problem is very recent – in the last twenty years or so. Emissions in the West go back decades and even centuries, which means that cumulative emissions are much greater among – yes – white people. This matters because climate change is caused by the total accumulation of emissions, not just what comes out of the tailpipe this year.

            Second, much of our emissions reductions in Britain and elsewhere are because we have outsourced heavy and dirty industry to China. So a good slice of China’s emissions are actually ours. If you’ll forgive the expression, this allows us to whitewash our emissions profiles.

            Third, China is both a big emitter and highly vulnerable to climate change. That means they will potentially suffer the consequences of their own actions. China will have to pay for the mess it makes. The global north doesn’t. It’s much less vulnerable, and the damage it causes falls on others – particularly people of colour in Africa and south Asia who have contributed very little to the problem.

            All told, climate change remains a matter of racial justice, with or without Chinese tourists in St Albans.

          6. Jeremy – you claim that

            Emissions in the West go back decades and even centuries, which means that cumulative emissions are much greater among – yes – white people.

            But is it true that emissions are ‘much greater’ among white people? The evidence indicates not. Go to this IPCC Technical Summary: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/technical-summary/ Click on and then download Figure TS.2. You’ll see that the OECD (which incidentally is comprised of more than just white people – it includes South Korea for example) was responsible for less than 50% of cumulative CO2 emissions from all sources from 1750 to 2010. Moreover, since 2010 the West’s emissions have reduced by 9% whereas those of the rest of the world have increased by 22%: https://edgar.jrc.ec.europa.eu/overview.php?v=booklet2020.

            I’ve got further such evidence – this time from the UNFCCC – if you’re interested.

            So no – climate change seems not to be a matter of racial justice.

          7. Once again, for the sake of argument, let’s say you’re correct and East Asia is also responsible for climate change. The most vulnerable are still in black Africa, where carbon footprints are minuscule. Ergo, still a matter of racial justice.

          8. Jeremy, I was responding to your comment that ‘ cumulative emissions are much greater among – yes – white people’ and demonstrated that it was incorrect. So we’ve established that it’s not, as you previously indicated, akin to civil rights, apartheid and slavery – all white vs. black problems. Unless you meant Arab/African slavery – which I somehow doubt.

            But is it in any sense a ‘matter of racial justice’? Well, if people of Southern Asia (especially India where peoples’ carbon footprints are also minuscule) are both ‘also responsible for climate change’ and – as you also said – ‘especially vulnerable’, it’s hard to see it.

            Another complication: South Africa’s per capita emissions are 8.52 tonnes 32% greater than the EU’s. And even 5% greater than China’s.

          9. We’ve not established anything of the kind. I’m simply pointing out that even if you were right that climate change isn’t a matter of racial justice in its causes, it still is in its effects.

            The racial dimension of climate change is contested, complicated, and rarely discussed, so there’s no judgement on my part if you find it hard to see. I don’t expect you to change your mind in the comments below a blog post either, which is why I’m not going to go on replying ad infinitum. We’ll come back to it another time.

            All I would say at this point is that if there is even an outside chance that there is a racial dynamic to climate change, it is worth serious consideration. Especially from white men like you and me, who are less likely to see it.

          10. The IPCC data show clearly that cumulative emissions are not greater among white people. So, unless you dispute those data, we’ve established that the climate issue is not, as you previously indicated, akin to civil rights, apartheid and slavery – all white vs. black problems. Likewise we’ve noted that the data from India/Southeast Asia and Africa do not provide any coherent evidence supporting the view that there’s a ‘racial dynamic’ involved in the issue.

            Trying to squeeze race into the climate issue is getting you nowhere. I suggest that focusing on other aspects of the matter might be a better use of your time and undoubted energy.

          11. The IPCC have never analysed that proposition, so there’s no point citing them in either direction. But even if you were right about the causes of climate change, there would still be a racial dynamic to the effects of climate change. It falls hardest on Africa and south Asia, who have done little to contribute to it. This is the third time I’ve said this now, and it will be the last.

            I have no interest in trying to crowbar race into climate change, and I am far from the only person who has made the connection. My challenge to you remains though: it is far too easy for people like you and me to dismiss issues of racism out of hand, and I do suggest keeping an open mind on this.

          12. The IPCC have published data showing clearly that cumulative emissions are not greater among white people: see the Technical Report to which I provided a link above. You say that the people of Southeast Asia have done ‘little to contribute’. But that’s incorrect: their emissions since 2000 have been enormous and in 2019 they accounted for over 44% of global emissions.

            It may be easy for people like us ‘ to dismiss issues of racism out of hand’. But I’m not one of them. I simply see no basis for or value in introducing such issues into discussion about climate change.

          13. That’s exactly my point – “I simply see no basis for this” is practically the definition of privilege, which is why people like us need to be careful. I could give you a very long list of people who see race and climate as connected, but that’s for another post.

            Two things before I duck out of this threat. 1) You may need to re-read my comments and note where I have said South Asia (India, Bangladesh) and where I have said East Asia (China, Korea, Japan). 2) To the best of my knowledge, the IPCC have never assessed the racial dimension of climate change. Their OECD graph is no proxy for that, and whoever compiled that graphic would be puzzled by your assertion that it ‘clearly’ shows that emissions aren’t greater among white people. That’s not what it’s setting out to do.

            And finally, you still haven’t answered my point, repeated three times now, that even if you’re right about causes, there’s still a racial dynamic in the effects.

            Bye for now.

          14. I see no basis for or value in introducing such issues into discussion about climate change, not because of ‘privilege’, but because the facts (for example the unambiguous IPCC data re cumulative emissions) don’t support it. The fact that there’s ‘a very long list of people who see race and climate as connected’ doesn’t make it true. I look forward to your post about this.

            I haven’t answered that point because a racial dynamic in the effect is a completely different matter from a racial dynamic in the cause – the issue we were discussing.

  6. All of the above debate is naturally framed by the nation state worldview which we all settle easily into. Stepping back a little from this, it occurs to me that http://www.democracywithoutborders.org are really onto something when they emphasise the importance of a World Parliament in dealing with these global issues. Perhaps seen by some as utopian (although Universal Basic Income was seen as outside the “Overton Window” not so long ago until many countries commenced furlough schemes in response to the Coronavirus pandemic), Democracy Without Borders have started to flesh out the necessary steps towards fair participatory global governance …

    “A UNPA as a catalyst for change
    Societal value shifts, new global enlightenment, pressure on big NGOs to look long-term, all should lead to the “Great Transformation” but the key milestone is the setting up a UNPA. The crucial hurdle are the blocks at the elite level. In order for a world parliament to be established, both educational work and a firm desire for change on the part of the elite are required so that social blocks can be removed and allow a UNPA to be the first step. (A Bummel)”

    I am going to follow this further, especially as this is a Global Week of Action in support of a World Parliament.

    1. Mark: presumably when you refer to ‘the importance of a World Parliament in dealing with these global issues‘ you’re including Western scientists’ call for urgent and substantial cuts in greenhouse gas emissions as one such global issue. But the 2018 IPCC report calls for big cuts in emissions by 2030. And there isn’t even the remotest possibility of a world parliament being established in time to achieve that.

      I’m sorry to say this, but you’re living in dreamland.

  7. Robin: it is sometimes good to have dreams and aspirations. As a Christian, I could return to the Story of Joseph in Genesis 41 v 16 ….But God … or perhaps re-read again Kevin O’Brien’s book “The Violence of Climate Change”. I do not want you to trap me in permanent lament and despair (with Paul Kingsnorth and the Dark mountain project), nor do I want to inhabit the arena that O’Brien describes as the realm of the techno-optimists. I would rather take O’Brien middle path of “radical hope”. Apparently there is also a book of that title by Jonathan Lear – I do not know if Jeremy has read and reviewed it previously but I am going to add it to my reading list. Technological change will be helpful in tackling the climate crisis, ecocide and the social injustice of inequality, but political change in the form of better democracy will also be needed.

  8. Mark – you say:

    political change in the form of better democracy will also be needed

    If that’s true we’re in serious trouble: the prospects for ‘better democracy’ in countries such as China, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia are essentially zero.

    Sweet dreams.

  9. Robin: Yes, we are in serious trouble. But Andreas Bummel and Jo Leinen (A World Parliament) have at least given some thought to the problem of China ….

    “The democratization of China would mean that the proportion of the world’s population living in democracies would move from 60% to 80% changing the global political landscape. Presently change in China seems unlikely. But history has always been able to surprise. Average per capita income in now over 7,000US dollars and authoritarianism is in decline all around the world, and that process will not halt at the Chinese border. A world government is necessary in the “Tianxia system” (from the Zhou dynasty). A far-reaching reconsideration of the international order is underway in China.” (A Bummel, J Leinen, 2018)

    1. I’m sorry Mark, but you’re dreaming: a world government may come about in the far distant future (although personally I doubt it), but it’s certainly not going to happen in anything like the timescale within which many scientists say greenhouse gases must be cut to avoid probable global catastrophe.

      You might be interested to read this: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Climate-Change-Nation-State-Realist/dp/0241394074/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=Climate+Change+and+the+Nation+State+The+Realist+Case+Anatol+Lieven&qid=1603041149&sr=8-1. Lieven takes precisely the opposite view from yours – he argues that the climate problem can only be resolved via the agency of the nation-state.

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