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The Global Poor vs. the 10%: How Climate Inequality Hurts the Most Vulnerable and Least Responsible

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A new report by Oxfam has found the richest 10 percent of the world’s population produce half of the Earth’s climate-harming fossil fuel emissions. The poorest half—about 3.5 billion people—are responsible for only around 10 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Oxfam’s report is titled “Extreme Carbon Inequality: Why the Paris climate deal must put the poorest, lowest emitting and most vulnerable people first.” We speak with the report’s author, Tim Gore, head of policy for Oxfam International on food, land rights and climate change.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from just outside Paris, France, in Le Bourget, at COP21, the U.N. climate summit. We’re ending today’s show looking at extreme carbon inequality. A new report by Oxfam has found the richest 10 percent of the world’s population produce half of the Earth’s climate-harming fossil fuel emissions. The poorest half—about 3.5 billion people—are responsible for only around 10 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Oxfam’s report is titled “Extreme Carbon Inequality: Why the Paris climate deal must put the poorest, lowest emitting and most vulnerable people first.”

To talk more, we’re joined by the author of the report, Tim Gore, head of policy for Oxfam International on food, land rights and climate change.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Tim.

TIM GORE: Hi, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: These figures are stunning. The world’s richest 10 percent produce half of carbon emissions, while the poorest, 3.5 billion, account for just a tenth.

TIM GORE: That’s right. I mean, it’s absolutely obscene. And what we’re saying is that we absolutely have to tackle climate change and inequality together. We’ll either solve both these problems or neither. Now, I’ll give you another stat. The richest 1 percent probably emit something like 175 times more than the poorest 10 percent. So, you know, this can’t continue. We must tackle these two problems in tandem.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what most surprised you in this report?

TIM GORE: One of the things that I think is surprising people, as well as the startling global numbers that we just talked about, is the comparisons between countries. There’s a lot of talk here at the COP about the responsibilities of middle-income countries—India, China, Brazil, South Africa, etc. And one of the things I think is striking to people is that when you compare the lifestyle emissions of even some of the richest citizens in those countries, they’re still far, far lower than their counterparts in rich, developed countries—in the U.S. and European Union. So that’s one of the things that I think is raising eyebrows, and it does shed a new light on the talks here. You know, when we think about these new emerging economies, yes, large emissions on a national scale, but even their richest, nothing like as high lifestyle emissions as citizens in Europe or the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: How does this address, for example, the population control folks who say, if you just limit population, this will take care of all these problems?

TIM GORE: Look, it’s not—I mean, population growth is actually in the poorest countries where emissions are incredibly low, so that’s not the problem here. The problem is—unfortunately, it’s the richest. It’s the richest people on the planet are responsible for the majority of the emissions. So we do have to do something about their emissions. But ultimately, we’re not saying this is solely the responsibility of people in that richest 10 percent. You don’t have to be that rich to get into the top 10 percent in terms of salaries in the U.S. or Europe. But the real problem here, the real blockers, are the vested interests in the fossil fuel industry, sort of the carbon barons. That’s a tiny elite, and they’re the ones that are really holding back progress.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Tim Gore, your report states that between the Copenhagen and Paris climate summits—that’s between 2009 and 2015—the number of billionaires on the Forbes list with interests in fossil fuel activities has risen from 54 in 2010 to 88 in 2015, while the size of their combined personal fortunes have expanded by around 50 percent, from over $200 billion to more than $300 billion.

TIM GORE: That’s right. Now, that’s the real—you know, that should be the target of our campaigns, frankly. You know, these are the real problem. Yes, we need richer people to reduce their emissions. They need to do whatever they can in their lifestyles to do that. We need to support the poorest people to have access to renewable energy and adapt to climate change, but the real blockers here, you know, the real problems in this process, are the fossil fuel interests. That’s who we need to go over. They’re still making millions, billions even, from their investments in fossil fuels. And that’s why it’s great to have Bill McKibben and others that are fighting to get money taken out of those interests. And that should really be the target of our efforts.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as the whole global education ramps up on the dangers of fossil fuels to everyone, just to repeat this, the number of billionaires on the Forbes list has gone from 54—with fossil fuel activities, interests in fossil fuel activities—to 88—

TIM GORE: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: —increasing exponentially.

TIM GORE: Yeah, I mean, they’re continuing, almost oblivious to what the rest of the world is doing or experiencing. You know, we’ve had an increase in extreme weather events, new scientific studies, more people, regular people, taking action on the streets, like we’ve seen around the world in the last few days. So, despite the kind of growing public opinion, and even political leaders speaking out, these guys are just unconcerned. They just continue to rake in the profits. And we’ve got to expose them as the real interests behind climate inaction in this process.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about some of the solutions to dealing with extreme carbon inequality, as you call it.

TIM GORE: Sure. Well, first of all, we need a Paris agreement that does deliver for that poorest half of the global population, so poorest people, least responsible for the problem, and actually also the most vulnerable to climate change, so they’re living in countries that are highly impacted by droughts, by floods, by extreme weather events. So we’ve got to get a—first step is to a Paris deal that delivers for them. What does that look like? It means more adaptation finance on the table from the richest countries. At the moment, there’s something like between $3 billion and $5 billion per year flowing to all developing countries. Now, that amounts to something like $3 a day for every small-scale farmer on the planet. It’s like a cup of coffee per year. So that’s a total disgrace, frankly. So we need get a big increase in adaptation finance flowing to the poorest.

But then, we also need to make sure that we’re dealing with the impacts of climate change to which it’s not possible to adapt. So, islands that are being submerged by rising sea levels, crops that are being destroyed where it’s not possible to replant, we need to make sure that there’s something in this agreement to address that. And one of the big issues at the moment, we’ve got to make sure this is an agreement that respects human rights and gender equality, because that’s under threat. We’ve got the European Union sitting on the fence with that. We’ve got the U.S. not doing enough to defend those principles in this agreement. So these are some of the things that we must have. And, of course, the agreement needs to drive down emissions much quicker than is on the table at the moment, because that, in the end, is what’s going to determine whether those poorest people are going to have a chance to survive on this planet.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the unequal impact of climate change across the world. This is African Development Bank President Akinwumi Adesina.

AKINWUMI ADESINA: Africa, the least emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, now suffers the most from climate change. Others pollute, Africa pays—and pays dearly. Lake Chad is almost gone, and the sand dunes are encroaching the Sahel. We must not abandon Africa. Africa has been shortchanged by climate change. Africa must not be shortchanged by climate finance.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the president of the African Development Bank, President Akinwumi Adesina. Tim Gore, your response?

TIM GORE: Well, I mean, he’s absolutely right. I mean, those are powerful words, but they’re the same words that we’re hearing from small-scale farmers across the African continent and in many other regions of the world, actually. These are farmers whose livelihoods of course depend on the seasons, they depend on when the rains come. If they don’t come or they come at a different time or they fall too late or it’s too strong when it does come, then that affects, you know, whether or not, frankly, they can grow enough food to sell to the markets and feed their families for the year. So, you know, these are the people that must be in the minds of the negotiators that are here in Paris. We can’t imagine this is just a deal between the big powers, like the U.S. and China. We’ve got to make sure this is an agreement for the poorest people, wherever they live.

AMY GOODMAN: You also deal with food, food and disease. Disease is another whole issue caused by climate change.


AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, talk about the scarcity that people will suffer from.

TIM GORE: Well, right now, we’re actually witnessing around the world an unfolding food crisis. It’s linked to the El Niño phenomenon, which is being supercharged by climate change. So, from southern Africa to areas of East Asia and Central America, we’re seeing droughts, we’re seeing crops failing, and there are literally millions of people—countries like Ethiopia—that are at very serious risk of a major food crisis right now. That is the backdrop to these talks. It’s not making headlines around the world. It’s a slow-onset event. It’s not like a one-off big crisis. But we’re experiencing that. We’re responding to that as Oxfam. That is what climate change looks like. You know, it means people going hungry. And that’s why these talks matter so much. There are lives on the line.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you, Tim Gore, for being with us. Tim Gore is the author of Oxfam’s new report called “Extreme Carbon Inequality: Why the Paris climate deal must put the poorest, lowest emitting and most vulnerable people first.” He’s the head of policy for Oxfam International on food, land rights and climate change.

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