Davos Was a Case Study in How Not to Talk About Climate Change

Lambert here: Unsurprisingly!

By Jag Bhalla, a writer and entrepreneur. Originally published at Undark.

Science has a resistance to ill-founded assertions embedded deep in its bones. Carl Sagan called this “baloney detection.” But in the face of climate change, arguably our largest science-related crisis, these baloney detection capabilities haven’t kept our leaders honest.

Consider the big climate news from last month’s gathering of the global elite at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. News coverage of the meeting highlighted climate pledges made by the First Movers Coalition, a public-private partnership launched last year at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. The coalition consists of 55 corporations and 9 national governments that have made “ambitious commitments” toward limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Coalition members seek to use their collective purchasing power to jump-start early markets for green technologies in “hard to abate” sectors including aluminum, aviation, chemicals, concrete, shipping, steel, and trucking. Automakers Ford and Volvo, for instance, have pledged that, by 2030, a tenth of the primary aluminum they purchase will be produced with little or no carbon emissions. Alphabet, Microsoft, and Salesforce — also First Movers — pledged to invest $500 million in carbon recapture technology. And some coalition members announced specific carbon removal goals. For instance, Swiss Re committed to remove 50,000 metric tons by 2030; Boston Consulting Group pledged 100,000 metric tons. At Davos, U.S. climate czar John Kerry heralded the moves as a “gigantic shift” and lauded businesses for “taking the lead” in areas where governments have been slow to act.

Sounds impressive right?

Sadly, the baloney isn’t hard to detect.

That $500 million investment in carbon removal? It represents about 0.1 percent of Alphabet, Microsoft, and Salesforce’s collective revenues last year. And it’s dwarfed by the nearly one trillion dollars that energy companies plan to put into new oil and gas projects — so-called “carbon bombs” each blasting more than a billion tons of carbon skyward — by 2030. Likewise, the 150,000 metric tons of carbon removal promised by Swiss Re and Boston Consulting is barely a sliver (0.00002 percent) of the extra 646 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas that those carbon bomb projects are expected to spew into the atmosphere — pollution that will cook the planet for centuries, unless it can be later removed.

In fact, Swiss Re and Boston Consulting Group’s carbon removal commitments won’t even nearly offset the carbon footprints of their own employees. The average individual in the top 10 percent of global earners — and with the current Euro-to-dollar exchange rate, if you earn more than $39,100 a year, you qualify — causes about 31 metric tons of annual carbon emissions each. (These figures are according to the 2022 World Inequality Report.) Assuming most of Swiss Re’s 14,000 employees and Boston Consulting’s 25,000 staffers fall into that category, which for Boston Consulting seems almost certain given the six figure salaries that many of their workers appear to command, those employees alone would collectively produce more carbon in just two months than the companies’ carbon removal projects would remove over the next eight years.

Media coverage that evades these hard truths, and that fails to contextualize the Davos-style spin, is the kind of public relations-parroting press that glosses over the gravity of the climate crisis; it is more strenuous stenography than journalism. It legitimizes a corporate-friendly form of not-quite-science-denial that could be described as science evasion.

The misleadingly presented climate pledges coming out of Davos are but one act in a much larger, intricately choreographed ballet of baloney about carbon removal. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for instance, has proposed several climate scenarios that could potentially limit global warming to the target of 1.5 degree Celsius, but every one of them assumes that vast amounts of carbon — between 100 billion and 1 trillion metric tons — will be removed from the atmosphere over the course of the 21st century. Much of that carbon removal is expected to come by way of trees and other forms of biomass through a process called bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, or BECCS.

But research suggests that the planet’s capacity for reforestation is only large enough to remove about 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. (We currently produce around 40 billion metric tons of global carbon emissions annually, including emissions due to land-use change.) To achieve the lofty IPCC goals, not only would humanity need to rapidly max out the planet’s tree capacity using fast-growth monoculture — potentially jeopardizing biodiversity, current agriculture, and the 7,000 trillion extra calories per year that forecasters think will be needed to feed the growing world population by 2050 — we would also need to augment that tree planting with substantial artificial carbon removal technologies.

To illustrate the implausibility of that feat, here’s a potent baloney-battling metaphor from technology entrepreneur Saul Griffith: “Imagining that we can build machines that work 20 times better than all of biology is a fantasy created by the fossil-fuel industry so they can keep on burning.” He adds: “If you had a giant set of scales and put all the things humans make or move on one side, and all of the CO2 we produce on the other, the CO2 would weigh more.”

Make no mistake about it: This is a race. As a recent IPCC press release notes, to limit global warming to around 1.5 degrees Celsius, greenhouse gas emissions would have to peak “before 2025 at the latest, and be reduced by 43 per cent by 2030.” Although carbon removal technology and trees will play a part, neither will get humanity remotely close in time. We’re logically left with one primary path: cutting the demand for fossil fuels. The hard truth about this path, a truth the Davos elite and most mainstream media seem reluctant to acknowledge, is that it will require personal sacrifices, especially from the world’s wealthiest people. On average, the top 1 percent of global earners — people who earn $130,000 a year or more — cause 110 metric tons of carbon emissions each year per person. For perspective, that’s about 2,200 times the carbon burden of a typical citizen of Burundi. The world’s 1-percenters out-polluted the poorest half of humanity twice over between 1990 and 2015, and recent estimates suggest they are collectively responsible for more than 11 times the annual greenhouse gas emissions attributed to notorious climate villain ExxonMobil. Meanwhile, the top 10 percent — which includes earners who make $39,100 a year, a middle class income for individuals in Global North countries like the U.S. — produce nearly half of all carbon harms. No arithmetically coherent plan to cut carbon emissions can ignore this reality.

I’d argue that the concentration of carbon harms among 10-percenters brings a silver lining: It means that individual actions taken by that relatively small segment of the population can quickly make a big difference, circumventing the delays that plague broader political and systematic change. If the average, well-off North American were to cut their carbon emissions to levels on par with typical top ten percent earners in Europe, they would trim their carbon footprint by roughly 44 metric tons annually. If just one in five Americans did that, the country could hit Biden’s goal of cutting U.S. annual emissions in half by 2030. Here’s another way to think about it: If each American in the top 1 percent of global earners cut their carbon footprint by just 1 percent, it would be equivalent to getting nearly 8 million cars off the road in the U.S. That’s around eight times the carbon savings of America’s all-electric vehicle fleet.

The climate crisis is driven by, and can only be fixed by, the choices of the world’s wealthy. Yet most business and financial leaders are cognitively stranded in the before-times. As economic historian Adam Tooze was quoted as saying in a recent Bloomberg article, Davos attendees “imagine they can find a great bunch of technological solutions and capitalism will do its job of creative destruction.”

But we’ve just seen how that story ends. In a recent essay for the New York Times, David Wallace-Wells noted that when wealthy nations and biotech companies were presented with an opportunity to make Covid-19 vaccines widely available to the world — an option that Biden said would be “the only humane thing in the world to do” — they instead chose to put profits above saving lives. Let’s not repeat that horrific fiasco on climate. 

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. John

    “Let’s not repeat that horrific fiasco on climate.”

    As long as there is profit in doing nothing, nothing will be done. That is all I know and all I need to know. All the rest is “baloney” by whatever name.

    1. lyman alpha blob

      Indeed. My company just gave a presentation talking about their commitment to reducing carbon emissions. Among the few minor tweaks that wouldn’t amount to much, one rationale was that if people didn’t make one plane trip to our business conference, they would have to make five trips during the course of the year to get the same business done. Of course no mention was made of the hundreds of support people who also fly to the conference who wouldn’t have made any flights at all had it not been held.

      Years ago I went on the first and only cruise I will ever take. They talked up how environmentally friendly their industry was, citing recycling beverage containers as one benefit they provided. My thought at hearing that nonsense was that if they really wanted to help the environment, they’d sink the whole fleet to the bottom of the ocean to help start a new reef.

      People will twist themselves into all kinds of illogical knots to make themselves feel virtuous as they plunder the planet for cash, and the worst thing is I really think some of them believe it.

  2. anon y'mouse

    these richies then own and run fewer yachts, extra homes and private plane rides. they shop at Whole Paycheck for organic foodstuffs already. so then what?

    better to attack the emissions in the source of their high incomes—how much of their ownership income is produced by carbon emissions? how much junk are they responsible for to ensure their neverending profit? how many “consumers” of carbongoods does their wealth rest upon?

    still can’t escape that individualization (“my footprint”) that the carbon industry framed this entire debate within, so even here “one in five cutting their emissions will help tremendously”. oh, really? so we’re back to Bush II being a more eco-conscious elite than Al Gore, again.

    this convo is saving no one.

    1. Rod

      I agree with where to attack emissions.
      Won’t happen unless the 99% of us can cite these facts first in any discourse—imo.

  3. Rod

    Great KISS view of everyone’s problem.

    Meanwhile, the top 10 percent — which includes earners who make $39,100 a year, a middle class income for individuals in Global North countries like the U.S. — produce nearly half of all carbon harms. No arithmetically coherent plan to cut carbon emissions can ignore this reality.

    First World responsibility without a doubt.
    Smartest, positioned, people in the room.
    $19.25 an hour, for 40×52 puts you into the global 1%.
    99 to 1.
    Wake up.

  4. John Steinbach

    “The climate crisis is driven by, and can only be fixed by, the choices of the world’s wealthy.” As long as they have a choice, nothing will happen. Since “Silent Spring” and “The Closing Circle,” the wealth gap has exploded & is currently accelerating. The SC EPA decision destroys to ability of regulators to administrate changes (Even if there were a scintilla of evidence that there was a desire or will to do so.)

    As the Jackpot becomes increasingly obvious, collective organized resistance will emerge, whether fascist or socialist. As Rosa Luxemberg said over 100 years ago, the choice is “socialism or barbarism.”

    1. digi_owl

      And the monied are happy with barbarism, as long as they are able to pay the barbarians to go after anyone but themselves.

  5. Roy Morrison

    Mass and quick installation of solar energy systems is an available tool to move rapidly toward slashing carbon emissions. It is a zero fuel cost solution that requires a rather trivial number of acres of panels on roofs, over parking lots, along highways, in fields, as dual-use on farms. Storage and system balancing by a combination of storage systems at retired fossil fuel plants with their extensive transmission line systems, plus 2 way battery systems in the millions of electric cars, plus the use of green hydrogen from renewable powered electrolyzers to power combustion turbines for system peaks. If allowed I can build a megawatt of solar on 4 acres of vacant land in a few weeks with dual facing PV panels that captures reflected solar from the ground i cover with seashells or crushed rock, we spend billions and billion on war but hardly a cent for buidling renewable technologies to save ourselves. This combined with Enormous carbon sequestration not simply by planting trees, but by marine cultivation of kelp and azolla in cosstalwaters. Roy Morrison Managing Partner SunPartnersSolar.

  6. Mikel

    It’s simple. The world can be a place where human life has the potential to thrive or the world can keep supporting the likes of the Davos elite. Can’t have both.

  7. Susan the other

    One big thing we are sorely missing is a list of energy priorities. Should every person have an allotment? Should people be able to pool their allotments? I’m not thinking carbon tax here, more like a neighborhood energy fund. Should highly industrialized technical societies be allowed to maintain their lifestyles at the expense of low tech countries and or the planet? Is military innovation and excessive use of energy really necessary? It is unquestionably insane. Are there other methods for keeping the peace than threat of massive destruction. Just think how happy Ukraine might be if it had not come to war – if war was so wasteful and destructive it could no longer be tolerated? How much pollution does one SpaceX rocket contribute? One coast-to-coast plane flight? Long distance trucking; distribution as opposed to localized provisions. To say that the carefree 1% need to be restricted is superficial – what we all need are rational guidelines and protocols. Yesterday.

  8. Telee

    The Biden policy is to support the role of big oil. On Friday another round of drilling leases was announced much to dismay of environmentalist. His policies have enhanced profits of the fossil fuel industry, pharmaceutical companies, arms industry and the FIRE sector. He ignores the profit taking of our monopolies but pointing to the Ukraine war. Even as studies have show that over 300,000 lives taken during covid he opposes national health care while supporting the privatization of Medicare by allowing private equity to administer health care for seniors. In the works are cuts for social security. No relief for student debt and no support for some of the initial reforms proposed in the BBB. How can we want him to have another term? However, if the republicans take over, a party that doesn’t believe in global warming things will get worse.

    1. Anthony G Stegman

      In totality I don’t believe that Trump or DeSantis would be worse than Biden. “Believing” in global warming means nothing if no actions to combat it are taken. And, oh by the way, under the Biden administration the risk of nuclear war has been increasing.

      1. synoia

        Yes, When in trouble at home, go adventuring abroad.

        I do wonder if the Davos crowd want a nuclear war, and climate change, to cull the opu;ation.

  9. Kouros

    The biggest laugh I had of fake attempts of reducing carbon footprint was a study on a health authority in western Canada on how to replace aerosolized asthma medication with something less damaging for climate…

  10. drumlin woodchuckles

    . . . ” Meanwhile, the top 10 percent — which includes earners who make $39,100 a year, a middle class income for individuals in Global North countries like the U.S. — produce nearly half of all carbon harms. No arithmetically coherent plan to cut carbon emissions can ignore this reality. ”

    I would like to see that top 10 percent broken down by 1 per cent increments. How much skycarbon load does the tippy toppest 1 percent cause? And how much skycarbon load does the next 1 percent down the ladder ( the 99th one-hundredth of all people) cause? And how much skycarbon load does the next 1 percent down the ladder after that ( the 98th one-hundredth of all people) cause? And the same for the next 7 1% increment loads of people rung by rung down the ladder? And finally, what does the very last and lowest of that top 10 % cause?

    Is it a smooth curve all the way down? Or is it a “reverse hockey stick”?

    I ask this because we all know that figures lie when liars figure, and I wonder whether artificially “including” someone at $36,100 / year as being “in” the “top 10 %” isn’t simply a rhetorical deception device meant to make lower middle class people feel somehow guilty in order to soften us up for being psychologically extorted and morally blackmailed.

    So I really would like to see those numbers broken out exactly as I described them being broken out.
    Someone operating in good faith will be happy to provide those numbers. If someone doesn’t want to provide those numbers, that is sufficient to prove to me the utter and absolute bad faith in which they operate.

    1. Anthony G Stegman

      Including those who earn (and spend) $39,100 annually in the 1% makes sense when you consider that literally billions of people get by on far less. Even so-called poor people in the US have significant carbon footprints due to their relatively high consumption patterns compared to lots of people in, say, Africa and India.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        But I would like to see the relative contribution of each 1% of that 1% to carbon skydumping broken out rung by rung. That way I would know whether it makes real sense as to relative size of Mister $39,100’s contribution or not. Since $40,000 is easier to say than $39,000, I will just say $40,000 from now on.

        So if Mr. 40 thousand dollars is emitting as much skycarbon as Mr. 400 thousand dollars, then Mr. 40,000 is just as much a part of the problem. If Mr. 40 thousand emits 10 times less than Mr. 400 thousand, then Mr. 40 thousand is ten times less a part of the problem. And is a hundred times less a part of the problem than Mr. 4 million. And is ten thousand times less a part of the problem than Mr. 4 billion.

        So lets shrink everyone above 40 thousand/year down to 40,000 first. And then we’ll see how big a problem all the Mr. 40 thousand dollar people are.

        And by the way, that includes shrinking everyone in Petionville down to $40,000 per year.

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        So poor Americans are not really poor? They are merely ” so-called” poor?

      3. tegnost

        Including those who earn (and spend) $39,100 annually in the 1% makes sense when you consider that literally billions of people get by on far less.

        Of course it’s relative…
        it’s called comparative advantage in the dark places where they pile up the money.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          And it isn’t Mr. $40,000/year who’s piling up any money.

          And the 40 thousand a year people have limited power over their own carbon purchase and burnup. They didn’t ask for America’s network of trains, trolleys, streetcars to be destroyed from the 1930s through the 1960s by a three-way conspiracy of Standard Oil of New Jersey, General Motors and Firestone Tire and Rubber. The 40 thousand a year people live in the world the 40 million a year people made and make.

          Now, in their collective mass, the 40-thousand-and-below majority could have a measure of power to force a reconfiguration of certain elements of our built and enforced environment, but only if they could somehow conquer it in the teeth of upper-class power combines always ready, waiting, and watching watching watching to prevent it.

          If some event were so totally Pearl Harbor in its impact on the majority that 200 million Americans all at once say : ” who did this? Whom do we need to exterminate in order to force the system to permit us to fix this?” and start a patient crusade of decades of rage and hatred against the perpetrator classes in order to kill them off enough to force the remainder to permit improvement, then the majority might be able to force improvement against the will of the ruling elites. And some of that improvement might include carbon-conservation-friendly remaking of parts of society.

      4. anon y'mouse

        those making 40k are a lot less responsible because they live in the society owned by the top few percentage points, and managed by the next 10-15 percentage points.

        we don’t individuallly choose/not choose to be a part of a high carbon society, and the people who live in the low carbon society (we are told) want to live at the $40k guy level. we go to work (driving because we can’t afford closer real estate) and consume goods because we must.

        there’s no woodland, jungle or savannah to return to and they wouldn’t let us even if we wanted to.

        there’s no “consuming better choices” in this society at mr. $40k income level. he’s got what the system gives him.

        so to include him means bunk. especially not if the rest of the world would join him in an instant in his $40k carbon lifestyle level. this is merely trying to reapportion blame away from those who control things, like who and how many get to live at the $40k high carbon lifestyle, and that it continue to be carbon intensive.

  11. schlott

    The near term answer for most of us is to install the infrastructure to use solar thermal to the extent practical in our individual situations. We can’t count on govt policy to make it instantly economic. But we can count on the sun to continue heating our solar panels, and the heat/hot water system it feeds, regardless of how high the Russians or Joe Biden , or any other circumstance, drive the oil prices in the future. Be the change you wish to see in the world. And live in humble appreciation of life. Our modern world of central bank perpetual fiat inflation is driving us all to strip mine/spoil this beautiful world in which we live.

    1. anon y'mouse

      individual solutions to systemic problems won’t save the well-to-do (because the individual solutions cost money) “enlightened” either.

      it just makes you feel better about “doing your part”. see “voting” as well.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        I will say this for ” individual solutions” . . . ” individual solutionisers” may well learn to recognize eachother and seek eachother out and become a community and then a culture strong enough to support a movement . . . a movement to force systemic changes one way or another.

        And if you are among a group of people and the discussion gives you an opening to suggest systemic solutions to carbon skyflooding problems, and the inevitable sneermonger tries to humiliate and discredit you in the minds of the others by saying ” oh yeah? What’s in your footprint?” . . . if your documented personal footprint indicates sincerity and non-hypocrisy, you may still get a respectful hearing on the part of the others whose minds the sneermonger was trying to poison against you.

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