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How Wealth Inequality Fuels the Climate Emergency: George Monbiot & Scientist Kevin Anderson on COP26

StoryNovember 11, 2021
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The United States and China made a surprise announcement on Wednesday at the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow on a joint pledge to reduce methane emissions and slow deforestation. The United States is the largest historical emitter of carbon emissions, while China has been the largest emitter in recent years. As negotiations continue, we speak with British journalist George Monbiot and British climate scientist Kevin Anderson about how world leaders and even some climate scientists are downplaying the climate emergency. “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.

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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. This is Climate Countdown. I’m Amy Goodman, in New York, also joined by Democracy Now! co-host Nermeen Shaikh. Hi, Nermeen.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Hi, Amy. And welcome to our listeners and viewers around the country and around the world.

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 largest historical emitter of carbon emissions, while China has been the largest emitter in recent years, though the U.S. produces far more emissions on a per capita basis than China. Xie Zhenhua, China’s climate change envoy, spoke in Glasgow Wednesday.

XIE ZHENHUA: [translated] Climate is a common challenge faced by humanity and will impact the well-being of future generations. It’s becoming increasingly urgent and severe, turning a future challenge into a crisis happening now. In the area of climate change, there is more agreement between China and the United States than divergence, making it an area with 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 discretionary thing, frankly. This is science. It’s math and physics that dictate the road that we have to travel.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.S.-China joint agreement came just hours after the text was released of a draft of the Glasgow agreement. The draft calls on nations to strengthen their climate plans and to accelerate the phasing out of coal, as well as subsidies for fossil fuels. But many climate justice groups faulted the draft for not requiring nations to do more to address the climate emergency.

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 is with us, journalist, author, columnist with The Guardian. He’s been hosting a daily program from Glasgow on COP26.tv called Monbiosis. His most recent book is titled Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis. His latest piece in 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 say that science is on the side of civil society, not, as you call them, the climate glitterati or the negotiators or even some climate scientists. Can you 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. Well, this really goes back to the clip you had from Joe Biden [sic], when he said what matters is the physics and the maths. And the physics and the maths are really clear here. 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. So, they are not talking in any way in line with the physics and the maths that Joe Biden evokes. But, actually, the protesters and the civil society movements, in their work that they engage with more locally, all of that is much more in line with what the science is calling for.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Kevin Anderson, can you say specifically what exactly does the science suggest these biggest emitters, the U.S. and China, should be doing?

KEVIN ANDERSON: Well, we have to — we’re in such a desperate situation now. We have been 30 years, 31 years now, since the first major report on climate change, and emissions have just been going up, year on year. We now have very little emissions space left. 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 take our 1.5 degree C commitment and you recognize the difference between what are called developing country parties in the Paris Agreement and developed country parties, so the richer and the poorer parts of the world, then for the richer parts of the world, if we are to deliver on our 1.5 degree C commitment, then we need to be zero emissions from energy by around 2030, if we want an outside chance at 1.5 by 2035. Now, that 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. And Biden and Obama demonstrate that. Well, Obama demonstrated it in the U.S. 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. There is no leadership within any of the progressive countries. And to be blunt, you know, China is really reflecting that absence of leadership when it comes to climate change, as well.

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 THE crucial 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 eminently possible, as we saw when the U.S. entered the Second World War on the 8th of December, 1941. Within months, it had turned the entire economy around, from a civilian economy to a military economy. Between 1942 and 1945, the U.S. federal government spent more money, in current dollar terms, than it did between 1789 and 1941. So, now they say, “Oh,, there’s no money. There’s nothing we can do.” That’s just nonsense. They could fix this in no time at all if they wanted to. If we had a program on a comparable scale, we could leave all fossil fuels in the ground by 2030 and switch to an entirely new clean energy economy.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, George, also, I want to ask you about your recent 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 explain what the situation is?

GEORGE MONBIOT: Sure. This is a fundamental issue of justice and equity. So, the top 1% in terms of wealth around the world use 15%, produce 15% of the greenhouse gas emissions, which is twice as much as the bottom 50%, whose total emissions are just 7% of the 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.

And this is driven, to a very large extent, by the remarkable, disproportionate use of aviation. There’s one set of figures suggesting that the richest 1% are responsible for 50% of the world’s aviation emissions. But also by their yachts, for example. The average common or garden superyacht, kept on standby for a billionaire to step onto whenever he wants, produces 7,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per 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. So, one superyacht is what? Over 3,000 people’s worth of emissions. This is just grossly, outrageously unfair. And we should rebel against the habit of the very rich of taking our natural wealth from us.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Asad Rehman, executive director of War on Want, lead spokesperson for the 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 have ignored every moral and political call to do their fair share. Their broken promises are littered across 26 COPs. Empty press releases drafted by polluting companies no longer fool anyone. COVID vaccine inequity and net zero 2050 are just the latest examples of deliberately sacrificing the poor for profit by those whose wealth was and continues to be looted from the Global South.

Whilst we are frustrated and angry, we are not without hope. We know it’s ordinary people who change history. And we will change history. The era of injustice is over, Chair. We will uproot these systems of oppression with our Global Green New Deal to guarantee everyone the right to live with dignity and in harmony with our 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, if you can talk more about this issue, both you and George, Asad Rehman and so many other climate activists talking about this 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. Take all of this on.

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. And then we turn around to those parts of the world, and then we blame them for the emissions in manufacturing the goods that we are enjoying. And that’s everything from our electronic goods to parts for our cars. It’s our clothes. So, you know, the U.K. has effectively moved to a bar and banking culture, and offshored 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.

I mean, if you take that into account, you tend to find that most wealthy countries have a much larger carbon footprint than when you just look at the energy they use within their boundaries. 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. And when we do that, then the challenges get even more striking in terms of what we have to do, and it also brings out even further the issues of equity, the disparity between the richer parts of the world and the poorer parts of the world.

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 multiple publics. 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. So, within all of our countries, there are large swaths of the country who are the average and below-average consumers. 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. So I think we have to differentiate not just between countries but even within our countries.

And my concern there is that: Who are the people that frame the climate debate? 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 we frame the debate. And we never, ever frame the debate with equity at its core. 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. But we never talk about that, because we are in the high-emitting group.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Kevin, you yourself have not taken a plane in years. When we interview you at the different climate summits, you have taken a train. 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 think Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary, spoke from the United States. And you also have that China-U.S. surprise announcement. 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: Yeah. 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 Saudi Arabia or Qatar or Norway or the U.K. or the U.S. Everyone can become net zero, every county, every company. 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.

And disturbing for me is that, actually, a lot of the academic community has swallowed 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. In all of our scenarios, in all of the IPCC, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, scenarios about what we need to do about climate change, they rely on either technologies or so-called nature-based solutions, which are also equally dangerous, for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the future. So, that is incredibly dangerous reliance.

When it comes to China, I mean, China is a very high emitter, obviously. 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. A lot of it is made out of metals that have been turned into manufactured goods in China. And then we blame them because they’re using lots of high-carbon energy to produce those materials.

It is true China has to move away from those. It has to rapidly move away from its very rich and deep embedded fossil fuel industry. And it has the potential to do that, probably more than most other parts of the world, because it is very good at making these rapid shifts in technology. But we must not continue to blame China for these manufactured goods that we’re using. We need to take a more collaborative approach. 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 do you facilitate them making a rapid shift away from fossil fuels?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: George Monbiot, could you comment on what Kevin Anderson was saying about this category of net zero, and then also talk about what the alternatives to fossil fuels, to oil and gas and coal, are, what you think are the most likely and efficient, that you propose, including nuclear?

GEORGE MONBIOT: Well, Kevin is absolutely 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 continuing that 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 that 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 wind. We need the solar. But we should not discount other forms of clean energy, where they are safe and where they are appropriate. And, of course, in different parts of the world and for different purposes, different kinds will be safe and appropriate. 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. But then, if we cannot meet the energy demand, I would prefer nuclear to carbon capture and storage, which I think is a real problem. And so I prefer nuclear to that, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. Kevin Anderson and George Monbiot, thank you so much. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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