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Stop asking the impoverished to fix climate change

It’s time we stop letting corporations place the onus for climate change on society’s least able.

The World Economic Forum in Davos last week was more or less a waste of time, as I pointed out here. The event purported to be a meeting of top economic and political minds aiming to tackle, amongst other things, climate change.

The WEF invited along Greta Thunberg, as well as a host of other young climate activists, whose speeches added legitimacy to founder Klaus Schwabb’s vision of implementing real solutions to global warming. Of course, like all international conferences on climate solutions so far, Davos overpromised and underdelivered. This particular drain of resources stings particularly acutely, however, because, as a Greenpeace report pointed out, 24 of the largest corporations represented at Davos had funnelled as much as $1.4 tn USD into the fossil fuel industry cumulatively since Paris in 2015.

It’s yet another example of economic corporations agreeing to minimal cutbacks whilst harping on about the mandate of the individual to address climate change. The fissure that exists between big companies and everyday people in terms of contributing to the planetary-scale threat is innumerable. This recent report from the Carbon Majors Database found that just 25 corporations and state-owned entities are responsible for more than half of global industrial emissions since 1988.

Most of these are coal and oil producing companies like Shell and BP, to whom Davos representatives Goldman Sachs and Bank of America (amongst others) have been funnelling mountains of cash for years.

So for the Davos attendees to produce any actionable solution that didn’t directly involve overhauling their own operating systems is frankly laughable. Predictably, they didn’t.

Consider the reason that Emmanuel Macron didn’t show up to the conference this year. The French president took precisely the kind of action often deemed necessary by execs at these conferences – whacking up the cost of owning fossil-fuelled vehicles – only to have his country erupt in protests. The message to Macron from the yellow vests and those in the lowest income brackets was clear: don’t talk to us about the end of the world until you’ve told us how we’re going to deal with the end of the month.

The ‘spin’ that’s necessary to pass climate policies is unfortunately at odds with the (justified) alarmism and climate idealism climate activists represent, and it’s an art that Trump’s regime has regrettably nailed. When Olaf Scholz, Germany’s finance minister, said that his government was committed to taxing carbon emissions more heavily, the US treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin replied ‘if you want to put taxes on people, go ahead and put a carbon tax. That is a tax on hardworking people.’

It’s easy to dismiss his comments as those of a politician with his head in the sand, but he has a point. Speedy action to tackle the climate emergency requires political action. But political action will only be possible if governments can carry their voters with them. And that’s not going to happen if any measure enacted seems all pain no gain.

Luckily, there is a solution. Instead of a political narrative that debates whether or not carbon taxes on the general public are ethical or justified – whether you’ve got your head in the clouds like Greta or you’re on the ground with the working class yellow shirts – surely we should be focusing on why carbon taxes on corporations aren’t higher. Additionally, we should ask ourselves why the people sat at the climate debate table are also those funding the industry with the biggest carbon footprint of them all.

In 2006, Nick Stern, the head of the UK Government Economic Service, produced a report on the economics of climate change in which he called the failure to deal with the heating of the planet the greatest market failure of all time. But since the Stern report there’s been a financial crisis, and decade in which living standards for the majority of people have moved sideways. It’s much easier to worry about the state of the planet if you’re comfortable and not relying on food stamps to eat.

At the heart of what’s wrong with conferences like Davos is this unwillingness to confront the reality of inequality, and how it renders ineffective any citizen-based climate policy. There was plenty of handwringing about the climate crisis and the need to invest in new technologies to combat it but there wasn’t any willingness to discuss staggering these solutions so they proportionally effect the 1%.

Public support for a more rapid action to fight global warming would be stronger under a more progressive tax system, and under a system that imparts harsher rebates on companies supporting the hydrocarbon industry. Entrepreneurs would develop new green tech far quicker if governments set more onerous targets for reducing carbon emissions, rather than putting the burden on the 99%.

Whilst individuals have a role to play in alleviating the stress on our planet, appealing directly to individual virtues above all other avenues is akin to victim blaming. It shifts the burden from those who ought to act to those who are most likely to be negatively affected by climate change. A far more just and effective approach would be to hold those who are truly responsible for carbon emissions accountable for their actions, and I hope to see a lot more of that accountability at the upcoming UN Climate Change Summit (COP26) in Glasgow later this year.


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