Our liberty-loving way of life has landed us in an encircling moral maze otherwise known as the climate crisis. That means certain of our cherished rights face a new test. While many are misled into imagining we can escape with minor tweaks to our “normal” lives, the science begs to differ: We have a very narrow window to collectively cut emissions, or face a destabilized climate that will make life on Earth for most beings much more perilous.
Fortunately, there is much we can do to quickly improve matters, but first we need moral clarity. Consider this simple question: Since we are all created equal, what would equal carbon rights look like?
We now have part of an answer. The latest United Nations Emissions Gap Report includes the following chart, which shows that to stay on track for an average global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius, the average biosphere-baking emissions for each human on Earth under the most likely conditions needs to be 2.1 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (tCO2e) per year, by 2030. (The report also notes we’re currently on track for a 3°C temperature rise this century.)
For any given target temperature stabilization there is a “carbon budget,” a fixed total amount of carbon dioxide (and equivalents) that can be emitted by everyone, and everything, on Earth. To arrive at an “equitable low-carbon lifestyle allocation” of 2.1 tCO2e each per year by 2030, simply divide that total by the number of humans. The UN doesn’t quite call this the carbon “fair share,” but that’s what that horizontal line in the chart above means.
The moral of the chart’s story is that the world’s wealthy will need deep cuts as follows:
How much will different income groups need to change to get to their carbon “fair share”?
|Global income group
|Annual earnings (2015 USD)
|Annual average per capita tCO2e
|Change to get to carbon "fair share"
|Global income group
|Annual earnings (2015 USD)
|Annual average per capita tCO2e
|Change to get to carbon "fair share"
Let that sink in. The world’s wealthy need cuts of over 90 percent of their carbon emissions, to get to their carbon fair share. The top-skew is so huge that the world’s richest 1 percent cause double the carbon burden of the poorest 50 percent combined (that’s 3.5 billion people).
Most “middle class” Americans are in the global top 1 or 10 percent.
Since the bulk of humans still aren’t much to blame, calling this era the Anthropocene seems like an obscene and justice-denying misallocation of blame (“anthropos” here means humanity, but the bulk of humanity hasn’t materially contributed to the biosphere’s carbon burden). Perhaps technocene or plutocene or capitalocene would all be truer terms, since these gigantic globe-reshaping effects are caused by technology and overconsumption by the wealthy, and by capitalism.
To quote David Wallace-Wells, an editor at New York magazine and author of The Uninhabitable Earth, “there is something of a moral crime in how much you and I and everyone we know consume, given how little is available to consume for so many other people on the planet.”
Once we face the numbers squarely, it’s clear that deep individual and systemic changes are needed, including to our view of our right to the “pursuit of happiness” and the duties they require of us. Are we content to merely enjoy these rights as gifts, or will we do the work necessary to ensure that sustainable versions of those rights can be enjoyed by our descendants? These cherished rights that our ancestors sacrificed much for must also be adapted to fit within the biosphere’s limits.
How bad has the planet-plundering game gotten?
Somehow the following super-relevant science hasn’t gotten much attention: “Any transition towards sustainability can only be effective if far-reaching lifestyle changes complement technological advancements.” That’s how several researchers put it in a 2020 Nature Communications paper entitled “Scientists’ warning on affluence.”
The UN report seconds the conclusion, calling for a reframing of the meaning of affluence away from intensive resource use toward “the achievement of well-being and quality of life” within the biosphere’s limits.
So when leaders like President Joe Biden say they’ll heed “the science” on climate change, that should mean urgently enacting deep cuts to emissions, not just by the US as a whole, but by the wealthiest Americans specifically. There is no other physically possible, science-consistent way to get to 1.5°C stabilization, or even 2°C. (The UN report says we are heading for a world that is 3.2°C warmer, even with full implementation of the Paris climate agreement.)
The good news about such severely top-skewed resource use is that cuts in consumption by the wealthy have outsize benefits that are relatively painless. Our current way of life largely encourages flauntable consumption (larger homes, more energy-intensive travel, more carbon-burning baubles). Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we flipped that script and got the rich to compete for “fair share” carbon status, signaling their merit-worthiness by conspicuous carbon-constrained consumption? Elite early adopters could become moral leaders and personal-ecological entrepreneurs, role-modeling future-friendly lifestyles, showcasing sufficiency and low-resource satisfactions.
Few now recall that not so long ago, for many wealthy Americans the “idea of having enough frequently trumped the ambition for endless accumulation,” writes historian Richard White in his essay “Before Greed.” Until robber-baron norms were explicitly promoted, preached, and spread in the Gilded Age, elites once sought to be only “opulent enough.”
Unlimited greed isn’t some immutable trait of human nature — its role has varied historically, and anthropologically.
Your market choices matter, mathematically and morally
Contrary to the conscience-clearing trope that personal consumption choices don’t really matter, the UN report says 70 percent of total global emissions emanate directly from personal purchasing decisions like diet and transportation. Here are a couple of face-slapping “fun facts”:
Our food system cooks up 30 percent of global greenhouse gases, and even if all other emissions were zeroed out today, food impacts alone would eat through the entire 1.5°C and 2°C budgets.
Facing the full carbon costs of the food supply chain can reveal surprising facts: For example, the chart below shows that cheese has a greater climate impact than pork or chicken.
Meanwhile, one round-trip medium-haul flight burns 30 percent of an annual “fair share” (a long-haul, 90 percent). And while electric cars have half the impact of gas-burners, we need “a major shift away from the car,” Greg Marsden, a professor at Leeds University, told the BBC. This science “implies a really major social change. That is why it is a climate emergency and not a climate inconvenience,” he said. Electric car sales alone won’t keep us on track.
“Green growth” is a gigantic global gamble
Ecology is mostly a zero-sum game: At any given time, there is a finite amount of key resources available to support life. And carbon is just one of the resources that science tells us has zero-sum biosphere limits, that we have to figure out how to fairly allocate. These boundaries mean that in our beloved economic games, “win-win” can’t always mean “more-more” anymore.
Here’s how the biosphere’s carbon dioxide handling capacity breaks down. The graphic is produced by the Global Carbon Project, an organization whose scientific goal “is to develop a complete picture of the global carbon cycle.”
As you can see, the global economy dumps around 40 gigatons of CO2 (34 Gt from fossil fuels and 5.9 Gt due to land use changes) while about 20 Gt is absorbed by vegetation, soils, and the oceans.
As Saul Griffith, a prominent tech optimist and advocate of abundance-oriented climate adaptation, writes in his book Rewiring America, “Imagining that we can build machines [to capture carbon that work many] times better than all of biology is a fantasy created by the fossil fuel industry in order to keep on burning.” Many such carry-on-burning-and-brunching “ideas are cynically promoted by people who wish to keep profiting … [while] burning your children’s future.”
A similar keep-profiting dynamic may fuel zealous pursuit of the holy grail of “growth” (increased economic activity measured by GDP). Wallace-Wells paints our prevailing policy consensus as acting like GDP growth “contained the whole meaning of life.” And the idea of “green growth” is trumpeted as the cavalry charging over the hills to allow our global resource gobbling game to continue.
Obviously we should welcome greener efficiency-enhancing innovations that reduce the resource intensity of economic activity (delivering more GDP for the carbon-buck), but we’re in a deadly race against time — on climate, winning slowly is the same as losing.
So the real issue is can “green growth” get us to our goal of deep carbon cuts by 2030?
Here’s a relevant chart from the “Scientists’ warning on affluence” paper, showing both global GDP (the orange line) and CO2 (the green line). Unfortunately, consumption growth has “mostly outrun any beneficial effects of changes in technology over the past few decades. These results hold for the entire world,” write the researchers.
So green growth’s get-out-of-jail-guilt-free story doesn’t yet fit the aggregate facts. For lower temperature stabilizations, there isn’t time for green growth to bear fruit. Rich nations need about 9 percent in emissions cuts every year starting in 2021, for the next decade.
Again, “green growth” is gambling with the life prospects of our kids (and of all the other life that evolved to fit pre-crisis conditions). Bet badly and your kids get worse and likely shorter lives, facing climate-triggered wars, fires, food system strains, floods, refugees projected in the tens of millions, excess air pollution deaths also in the tens of millions, and more. As Wallace-Wells puts it, no life will be “undeformed.”
And the main gain from taking that gamble? The world’s wealthy get ever more carbon-burning baubles. The shiny surface of abstract arguments for growth often hides a harder-to-face underbelly.
The current “growth” game, first, has a harsh zero-sum logic, and second, has precious little to do with ending poverty, though that argument is often used by those justifying unrestrained capitalist growth.
- Carbon physics reveals a global intergenerational zero-sum game: The more carbon we burn, the less carbon headroom our descendants will have. Alongside other resources consumed beyond renewable rates, scientists recently called this an “ecological Ponzi scheme.”
- And the “lifting people out of poverty” chorus about economic growth was dubbed an inertia-enabling “convenient alibi” by Philip Alston, formerly a UN special rapporteur on poverty: any decent analysis of the data defies that delusion, since only about 5 percent of global income gains go to the bottom 60 percent (and at this rate, it would take over 200 years to end poverty). “Nearly half [of global] growth has merely allowed the already wealthy top 10 percent to augment their consumption and enlarge their carbon footprints,” according to a recent report from Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute.
Since we can’t avoid putting all our eggs into the same biosphere basket, we’d better be super prudent. Until we’re certain green growth can deliver, the sensible, “science-backed” approach suggests de-growth: a controlled curb on rich people’s consumption, to buy time for green tech (or whatever your preferred long-term climate solution is) to be deployable at scale.
Here, Covid-19 offers key lessons. We changed consumption instantly on a vast scale (way faster than we can make large political or technological changes happen). The pandemic led to a 10 percent drop in US carbon emissions in 2020, according to preliminary estimates by the Rhodium Group. We must hit that every year this decade to stabilize at 1.5°C.
How we can do better
So what the hell can anyone do? The main answer for the majority of folks reading this is to cut your personal consumption, and to press for political and systemic changes to get off the “hedonic treadmill,” at least until we’ve stabilized. The “hedonic treadmill” refers to the effect that increases in consumption often result in no permanent gain in happiness.
We’ve all felt negligible or fleeting satisfaction from consumption, but sadly the carbon impacts are far from fleeting — they will last centuries. It’s critical to avoid mindless overconsumption. Many carbon footprint calculators are available to help you figure out your own carbon impact.
There’s also Peter Kalmus’s book, Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution. Kalmus is a NASA climate scientist living in Northern California, and his book describes how he personally got to 2 tCO2e per year. He also founded the No Fly Climate Science nonprofit, a group of climate scientists and others who have vowed not to use air travel, or to fly less. I see his point; if climate scientists aren’t making large changes in their own lives, why would others take their results seriously?
A quick way to cut through the cognitive fog here is to always consider actual kids, not abstractions like economic “growth.” Take the kids’-eye view: When they look back at your consumer and political choices, what will they think?
And always ask, “What would Greta Thunberg think?” She easily sees past the shiny surface of old-moral-world arguments that divert or immobilize “serious” adults. It sure seems like her scolding speech at the UN about “fairy tales of endless growth” contributed to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s statement in December: “Science tells us that unless we cut fossil fuel production by 6 percent every year between now and 2030, things will get worse. Instead, the world is on track for a 2 percent annual rise.”
This way of life is looking far from innocent. It fails the basic duty of care to protect our own kids.
Human rights, rightly understood
Having started this piece by positing a new human right, it’s worth reexamining what existing rights mean (or imply, and justify). Does a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” include a right to consume whatever you can buy, even if your pursuit of happiness heats the planet and harms your own kids? Can that be in anyone’s interests?
Who really has an incentive to gain by harming their descendants? Happiness through consumption has so far never charged full price (carbon taxes should really be called “truer costs”). Consumption above your carbon “fair share” is far from harm-free.
This sort of tacit “right to harm” framing might sound weird, but this logic has been seriously weighed by the courts: Judge Josephine Staton, dissenting in Juliana v. United States (aka the kids’ climate case), wrote, “Seeking to quash this suit, the government bluntly insists that it has the absolute and unreviewable power to destroy the Nation.” Courts around the world are being inundated by a rising tide of climate cases (1,300 in 28 nations, according to a 2019 report).
Why do we, and our governments, act as if businesses have some sort of “right to wreck” our life support system? Do the wealthy have a right to continue using resources at rates that science says will cause vast future suffering? In effect, this pits existing rights against each other: pursuit of happiness by unlimited consumption interferes with the right to life of others.
These 18th-century rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were developed under very different conditions. We now live in a world of material and moral limits. The science says that consumption rates beyond our biosphere’s limits will worsen our kids’ lives.
Fortunately, the scientific, legal, and moral momentum are converging on the same hopeful action story. For example, flourishing lives for 10 billion people are possible with existing tech, using less than 40 percent of today’s total energy production. Renewable energy technologies already cover half that, at about 26 percent worldwide in 2018, according to the nonprofit Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. But the numbers are equally clear that current highly top-skewed resource consumption patterns aren’t sustainable.
After Covid-19, many will be strongly tempted to rush back to prior habits, but that would return to the noxious normal that got us into this mess. The arc of this aspect of the moral universe is not long. We are far from bending it toward ecological justice.
Jag Bhalla is a writer and entrepreneur (his latest venture makes NanoSalad).