What If the World Cannot Save the World from Climate Change?

Yves here. This sort of well-meaning piece makes me want to tear out my hair. Yes, dealing with climate change is ultimately a governance problem, but not in the way John Feffer describes.

First, almost pervasively, activists who are correctly pushing for action to contain global warming fail to admit the scale and severity of changes needed in terms of daily activities and commerce, with the richest nations and individuals needing to make the biggest adjustments.

Second, there are no proposals of remotely sufficient scale. There’s way too much reliance on private sector incentives, Green New Deal hopium, and nowhere enough prohibition. Martin Weitzman’s classic public goods analysis looked at when the approach for curtailing externalities (in his example, pollution) should use taxation as opposed to prohibition. When the societal cost is higher than private costs, prohibition is the answer. Climate change induced havoc and loss of life to humans and other species (for instance, greater disease proliferation under higher average temperatures) should trump any private cost questions. Yet no one will even propose severely restricting private jet flights.

Third, even if the collective “we” had some sort of plan, we can’t implement in it in a democratic or even nominally democratic system like America’s. We would need to adopt war-level-mobilization approaches. That includes creating winners and losers on a sudden and very large scale. There isn’t remotely the social consensus to move in that direction.

And that’s before getting to national winners and losers. Consider this section from Conor’s post yesterday on NATO v. Russia in North Africa, quoting Yale Environment 360:

Atman Aoui, president of the Moroccan Association for Mediation, an NGO, sees large renewable projects such as the Noor solar park as part of a wider attempt to take control of desert regions that have previously been the domain of tribal groups. The sheer scale of the projects is “challenging assumptions that a low-carbon energy transition is inherently progressive,” he says.

Noting the scheme’s use of large amounts of water, he adds, “The irony that a project intended to mitigate climate change is only worsening the effects of climate change in one of Morocco’s poorest and most water-stressed regions is not lost on residents.”

That is before getting to the question of whether initiatives like this really are net positives, or are just the climate change version of Larry Summers’ recommendation that rich countries send their garbage barges to Africa.

To give a first world micro-example of this problem, I just ran into the Tesla charging station in the heart of Mountain Brook Village. Telsa never should have been allowed to build brand-specific charging stations! It’s wasteful and inefficient to have duplicative charging infrastructure. But the US will just about never stand up to commercial interests.

Fourth, on top of the picking industrial/commercial winners and losers problem, from a governance perspective, we have the problem of conflicting obligations: family/tribal, local communities, national, global. Humans have seldom been good at working out how to manage competing levels of responsibility. The tensions and contradictions get greater as societies become more complex. As the great philosopher, Jamie Lannister, said:

So many vows…they make you swear and swear. Defend the king. Obey the king. Keep his secrets. Do his bidding. Your life for his. But obey your father. Love your sister. Protect the innocent. Defend the weak. Respect the gods. Obey the laws. It’s too much. No matter what you do, you’re forsaking one vow or the other.

By John Feffer, author of the dystopian novel “Splinterlands” (2016) and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His novel, “Frostlands” (2018) is book two of his Splinterlands trilogy. Splinterlands book three “Songlands” was published in 2021. His podcast is available here. Cross posted from Common Dreams

The United Nations has convened 27 conferences on climate change. For nearly three decades, the international community has come together at a different location every year to pool its collective wisdom, resources, and resolve to address this global threat. These Conferences of Parties (COPs) have produced important agreements, such as the Paris Accords of 2015 on the reduction of carbon emissions and most recently at Sharm el-Sheikh a Loss & Damage Fund to help countries currently experiencing the most impact from climate change.

And yet the threat of climate change has only grown larger. In 2022, carbon emissions grew by nearly 2 percent.

This failure is not for want of institutions. There’s the UN Environment Program (UNEP), which oversees the complex of international treaties and protocols, helps implement climate financing, and coordinates with other agencies to meet sustainable development goals (SDGs). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has marshaled all the relevant scientific data and recommendations. The Green Climate Fund is attempting to funnel resources to developing countries to advance their energy transitions. The Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate, begun in 2020 at the instigation of the Biden administration, has been focusing on reducing methane. International financial institutions like the World Bank have their own staff devoted to global energy transition efforts.

Still, with the notable exception of the global effort to repair the ozone layer, more institutions have not translated into better results.

On climate change, notes Miriam Lang. a professor of environmental and sustainability studies at the Universidad Andina Simon Bolivar in Ecuador and a member of the Ecosocial and Intercultural Pact of the South, “it seems that the more we know, the less we are able to take effective action. The same can be said about the accelerated loss of biodiversity. We live in an era of mass extinctions, and there’s been little progress at the governance level despite many good intentions.”

One major reason for the failure of collective action is the persistent refusal to think beyond the nation-state. “It’s weird that nationalism has become so dominant when the challenges that we face are global,” observes Jayati Ghosh, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “We know that these problems can’t be regulated within national borders. Yet governments and people within countries persist in treating these crises as ways in which one nation can benefit at the expense of another.”

Can existing institutions be transformed to more adequately address the global problems of climate change and economic development? Or do we need different institutions altogether?

Another challenge is financial. “Adequate funding at all levels is a fundamental prerequisite to improving climate governance and the implementation of sustainable development goals,” argues Jens Martens, executive director of the Global Policy Forum Europe. “At a global level, this requires predictable and reliable funding for the UN system. The total assessed contributions to the UN regular budget in 2022 were just about $3 billion. In comparison, the New York City budget alone is over $100 billion.”

In part because of these budgetary shortfalls, international institutions have increasingly relied on what they call “multistakeholderism.” On the face of it, the effort to bring other voices into policymaking at the international level—the various “stakeholders”—sounds eminently democratic. The inclusion of civil society and popular movements is certainly a step in the right direction, as is the incorporation of the perspectives of academics.

But multistakeholderism has also meant bringing business on board, and corporations have the money not only to underwrite global meetings but to determine the outcomes.

“I was at Sharm el-Sheikh in November,” recalls Madhuresh Kumar, an Indian activist-researcher currently based in Paris as a Senior Fellow at Atlantic Institute. “We were welcomed at the airport by a banner that read ‘Welcome to Cop 27.’ And it listed the main partners: Vodaphone, Microsoft, Boston Consulting Group, IBM, Cisco, Coca Cola and so on. Most UN institutions face a growing monetary problem. But this monetary problem is not actually at the crux of the issue. It is astonishing how through multistakeholderism, which has evolved over the last four decades, corporations have captured multilateral institutions, the global governance space, and even the big International NGOs.” He adds that 630 energy lobbyists were registered at COP 27, a 25 percent increase from the previous year’s meeting.

The challenges facing global governance are well known, whether it’s nationalism, funding, or corporate capture. Less clear is how to overcome these challenges. Can existing institutions be transformed to more adequately address the global problems of climate change and economic development? Or do we need different institutions altogether? These were the questions addressed at a recent webinar on global governance sponsored by Global Just Transition.

Global Shortcomings

Transforming the current system of global governance around climate, energy, and economic development is like trying to repairing an ocean liner that has sprung multiple leaks in the middle of its voyage with no land in sight. But there’s an additional twist: all the crew members have to agree on the proposed fixes.

Jayati Ghosh is a member of the new UN High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism. “The challenge is in its very title,” Ghosh explains. “Multilateralism itself is under threat in part because it hasn’t been effective. But also the imbalances that are rendering it ineffective are not likely to go away any time soon. We’re all aware of this on the board. But without much broader political will, there’s a limit to any given individual or group proposals.”

In addition to nationalism, she believes that four other broad “isms” have prevented a cooperative response to the global problems facing the planet. Take imperialism, for instance, which Ghosh prefers to define “as the struggle of large capital over economic territories when supported by nation-states. We see evidence of that in continuous subsidies of fossil fuels or the greenwashing of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investments. The ability of large capital to sway international policies and national politics in its own interests persists unabated. That’s a major constraint to doing anything serious about climate change.”

Short-termism is another such constraint. In the wake of the Ukraine war, food and fuel corporations sought to profit in the short term by manufacturing a sense of scarcity. The rise in fuel and food prices, Ghosh notes, were created not so much by constraints on supply, but from market imperfections and control over markets by large corporations. That short-term profiteering in turn led to equally short-sighted decisions by the most powerful countries to reverse their previous climate commitments and make fewer such commitments at the last COP in Egypt. Politicians “reversed those commitments because they have midterm elections coming up,” she points out. “They’re worried that voters will support the far right, so they argue that they have to do whatever it takes to increase fuel supplies.”

Classism, in various forms of inequality, has also prevented effective action. “Globally, the top 10 percent, the rich, are responsible for one third to more than one half of all carbon emissions,” Ghosh notes. “Even within countries that is the case. The rich have the power to influence national government policies to ensure that they continue to take the bulk of the carbon budget of the world.”

Finally, she points to “status-quo-ism,” by which she means the tyranny of the international economic architecture, not only the legal and regulatory framework but also the associated global agreements and institutions. “We really have to reconsider the role played by international financial institutions, by the World Trade Organization, the multilateral development banks, and legal frameworks like economic partnership agreements and bilateral investment treaties that actually prevent governments from doing something about climate change,” she argues.

One way of addressing especially these last four obstacles is to reverse privatization. “The privatizations of the last three decades have been absolutely critical in generating both inequality and more aggressive carbon emissions globally,” Ghosh concludes. She urges the return of utilities, cyberspace, even land to the public sphere.

Revisiting Sustainable Development

In 2015, the UN endorsed 17 sustainable development goals. These SDGs include pledges to end poverty and hunger, combat inequalities within and among countries, protect human rights and promote gender equality, and protect the planet and its natural resources. But climate change, COVID, and conflicts like the war in Ukraine have all pushed the SDG targets further from reach—and made them considerably more expensive to achieve.

“The implementation of the 2030 agenda is not just a matter of better policies,” observes Jens Martens. “The current problems of growing inequality and unsustainable models of consumption and production are deeply connected with powerful hierarchies and institutions. Policy reform is necessary, but it is not sufficient. It will require more sweeping shifts in how and where power is vested. A simple software update is not enough. We have to revisit and reshape the hardware of sustainable development.”

In terms of governance, this means strengthening bottom-up approaches. “The major challenge for more effective global governance is a lack of coherence at the national level,” Martens continues. “Any attempt to create more effective global institutions will not work if it’s not reflected in effective national counterparts. For instance, as long as environmental ministries are weak at the national level we cannot expect UNEP to be strong at the global level.”

Stronger local and national institutions, however, operate within what Martens calls a “disabling environment” where, for instance, “the IMF’s neoliberal approach has proven incompatible with the achievement of the SDGs as well as the climate goals in many countries. IMF recommendations and loan conditionalities have led to a deepening of social and economic inequalities.” Also disabling is the disproportionate power wielded by international financial institutions. “One striking example is the Investor-State Dispute settlement system, which awards investors the right to sue governments, for instance, for environmental policies that reduce profits,” he notes. “This system undermines the ability of governments to implement stronger domestic regulations of fossil fuel industries or to phase out fossil fuel subsidies.”

Enhancing coherence also means strengthening UN bodies such as the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development, which is responsible for reviewing and following up on the SDGs. “Compared to the Security Council or the Human Rights Council, the HLPF remains extremely weak,” he points out. “It meets only eight days per year. It has a small budget and no decision-making power.”

Some additional institutions are needed to fill global governance gaps, such as an Intergovernmental Tax Body under the auspices of the United Nations, that would ensure that all UN member states, and not only the rich, participate equally in the reform of global tax Rules. Another oft-cited recommendation would be an institution within the UN system independent of both creditors and debtors to facilitate debt restructuring.

All of this requires sufficient funding. Around $40 billion goes toward the development activities of UN agencies, Martens notes, “but far more than half of these funds are project-tied non-core resources mainly earmarked to favor individual donor priorities. That means mainly the priorities of rich donors.” UNEP, meanwhile, gets a mere $25 million from the regular UN budget, which is about $3 billion and doesn’t include separate assessments for activities like peacekeeping and humanitarian operations.

More democratic funding would have the side benefit of shrinking reliance on foundations and corporate contributions, which “reduce the flexibility and autonomy of all UN organizations,” he concludes.

Addressing Multistakeholderism

One path that global institutions have taken to address the funding shortfall is “multistakeholderism.” As with corporations pushing for privatization at a national level with arguments about the inefficiencies of state enterprises or the bureaucratic state, the advocates of multistakeholder initiatives (MSI) point to the failures of global public institutions to tackle common problems as a reason for greater corporate involvement. In effect, this boils down to large corporations buying more seats at the table for themselves.

Madhuresh Kumar has produced a recent book with Mary Ann Manahan that looks at how multistakeholderism has evolved in five key sectors: education, health, environment, agriculture, and communications. In the forestry sector, for instance, they looked at initiatives like the Tropical Forest Alliance, the Global Commons Alliance, and the Forest for Life Partnership. “We found that in their first decade, the initiatives primarily established the problem by arguing that the multilateral institutions are failing and that’s why we need solutions,” he reports. With the rise in global demand for raw materials, particularly in the context of a “green economy,” there was also greater demand to regulate the industries. The corporate sector responded with initiatives that emphasized “responsible” mining, forestry, and the like.

These “responsible” corporate initiatives revolved around “nature-based” solutions that rely on markets to “get the price right.” Kumar notes that “at the heart of these false, ‘nature-based’ solutions promoted by MSI is the notion that if nature does not have a price, human beings are not incentivized to take care of it, that we have to use nature and also replace it. Carbon offsets, for instance, come out of the principle that you can continue to produce as much carbon as you want as long as you also plant some trees somewhere else.”

According to this logic, nature can be priced according to various “ecosystem services.” He continues: “Seventeen ecosystem services have been identified along with 16 biomes. Together they have an estimated value of $16-54 trillion. If they can be unlocked, the idea is that this money can be put toward solving the climate crisis. But we won’t see that money. Ultimately, what rolls out on the ground won’t help our communities.”

Not only nature is commodified but knowledge itself, for instance through intellectual property rights. “Increasingly, we have a reinforcement of very rigid rules and very rigid systems that lead to the concentration of knowledge and to large corporations appropriating traditional knowledge,” notes Jayati Ghosh.

Another essential part of MSI is the focus on technical fixes, like carbon capture technology, geoengineering, and various forms of hydrogen energy. “These divert a lot of attention from climate justice,” Kumar notes. “It is also having an impact on indigenous communities. For instance, the One Trillion Trees Initiative that the UN backs is promoting a monoculture, the destruction of biodiversity, and the eviction of indigenous communities and many others.”

The disenfranchisement of indigenous communities is especially worrisome. “Indigenous peoples are responsible for preserving 80 percent of the biodiversity that still exists today, which is even confirmed by the World Bank,” Miriam Lang explains. “Nevertheless, we somehow do everything to disrespect, weaken, and threaten indigenous people’s modes of living. We still systematically treat indigenous people as poor and in need of development. We are reluctant to guarantee their land rights, their rights to clean water, their rights to the forest where they live. Instead, we propose to pay them money to compensate their losses, which is just another way of weakening their social organization and decision-making. It causes division and lures them into consumerism, individualism, and entrepreneurialism: precisely those aspects of capitalism that have brought about the current environmental breakdown.”

In addition to corporations, large NGOs like World Wildlife Fund, and major funders like Michael Bloomberg, Kumar notes that “the UN has been a willing participant in all of this. Sustainable Energy for All, which is another MSI, was started by former UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon in 2011 as a response to a statement made by a group of countries. But Sustainable Energy for All later acquired an independent status of its own over which the UN has no control. The UN General Assembly plays an important role in shaping the agenda and setting standards. But then these institutions, like the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership that was initially backed by UNIDO, later go out on their own, become unaccountable, and fall into the lap of corporations.”

Democratizing Governance

In 1974, the UN declared a New International Economic Order to free countries from economic colonialism and dependency on an inequitable global economy. The developing world was unusually unified in supporting the NIEO. Though some elements of the NIEO can be seen in the Agenda 2030, the effort did not translate into any substantial changes in the Bretton Woods institutions—IMF, World Bank—that form the international financial architecture.

“The reason we had demands for a NIEO is precisely because developing countries felt that the global economy was not just or equitable,” Jayati Ghosh observes. “Yes, it was a period of relatively more access to certain institutions. But some of the imbalances that we’re talking about in trade or finance or technology existed even then. Of course, it’s also absolutely true that neoliberal financial globalization has dramatically worsened conditions globally. But I would put it more in terms of the supremacy of large capital over everyone else.”

Also, the United States and European Union continue to wield disproportionate power: appointing the leaders of the World Bank and IMF and controlling the majority of votes in these institutions. “Middle- and low-income countries, which together constitute 85 percent of the world’s population, have only a minority share,” observes Miriam Lang. “There is also a clear racial imbalance at play with the votes of people of color worth only a fraction of their counterparts. If this were the case in any particular country, we would call it apartheid. Yet, as economic anthropologist Jason Hickel points out, a form of apartheid operates right at the heart of international economic governance today and has come to be accepted as normal.”

Developing countries have long demanded a reform of the governance of these IFIs. “The voting rights were originally allocated on the basis of a country’s share of the global economy and of global trade,” reports Jayati Ghosh. “But this was done based on the data of the 1940s, and the world has changed dramatically since then. Developing countries have significantly increased their share of both, and certain countries are much more significant while a number of European countries are much less significant.”

Despite a very minor change in this distribution of votes, the United States and European Union retain the majority of the votes and the lion’s share of the influence. “When you have a new issue of Special Drawing Rights (SDRs)—which we just had in 2021 for $650 billion— this liquidity created by the IMF is distributed according to quota, which really means that the developing world doesn’t get very much. And 80 percent goes to countries that are never going to use them. So, it’s an inefficient way of increasing global liquidity.”

“Obviously the rich countries that control these institutions are not going to give up their power easily,” she continues. “They have blocked every attempt to change because they have the voting rights now. So, do you say, ‘Okay, let’s demolish the whole thing and start afresh’? But then, how do you create a new institution? How do you even create a minimally democratic way of functioning?”

If the rich countries won’t give up their power voluntarily, they’ll have to be pushed to do so. “I have to confess: I’m saddened by the lack of public outcry,” Ghosh adds. “Even in the very progressive state of Massachusetts, where I’m teaching, people couldn’t be bothered with this. Similarly, in Europe. People’s movements need to point out how this is against not just the interests of the developing world, it’s against the enlightened self-interest of people in the rich countries as well.”

A similar problem applies to the power of the rich within countries. “There’s a need for tax justice at the global level, and not only with the rich countries with all governments involved in setting the tax rules, especially from the global south,” Jens Martens says. “We have a tax system with the highest rates much below what we had in the 1970s or even the 1980s. The international community recently established a minimum tax of 15 percent for transnational corporations: this is a very minor first step at the global level.”

“We had suggested 25 percent,” Jayati Ghosh adds, “which is the median of corporate tax rates globally. But it isn’t just increased tax rates. It’s important to emphasize redistribution. Regulatory processes have dramatically increased the profit share of large companies. Before we get to taxation, we have to look at the reasons they’re able to have these very high profits. We allow them to profiteer during periods of scarcity or assumed scarcity. We allow them to repress workers’ wages. We allow them to grab rents in different ways. So, we need a combination of regulation and taxation to rein in large capital and to make sure that the benefits ultimately produced by workers come back to workers and society as a whole.”

“In the last decade of the twentieth century, we managed to make these corporations villains,” points out Madhuresh Kumar. “But today they are not seen as the villains. Governments in the global North and in the South have given them a platform. There is muted celebration if we are able to shift these corporations toward providing more renewable energy, which they have done by diversifying. But if we can’t shift the power imbalance, we won’t achieve any equality in global governance, in the financial architecture, or anywhere.”

Where Does Change Come From?
In March 2022, Jayati Ghosh was named to a new High Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism created by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. The dozen board members come from different countries and perspectives.

“We have to have a bit of a reality check on what commissions and advisory boards can achieve,” Ghosh points out. “We can advise. We can say this is what we think should happen, this is how we believe the international financial architecture must be changed. Everything else really depends on political will, which is not just governments suddenly seeing the light and becoming good. Political will is when governments are forced to respond to the people. Until that happens, we’re not going to get change no matter how many high-level boards and commissions come up with excellent recommendations that we can all agree with.”

After the 2008-9 global financial crisis, former World Bank economist Joseph Stiglitz headed up a UN-created commission. “It came up with some really fine recommendations, which are still valid,” Ghosh recalls. “But they were not implemented. They were not even considered. I don’t know if anyone at the IFIs even bothered to read that whole report.”

Multistakeholderism has elevated the status of corporations in high-level climate negotiations. But this is precisely the wrong strategy. “When the World Health Organization negotiated the Tobacco Control Convention, they decided to exclude lobbyists from the tobacco companies from the negotiations,” Jens Martens points out. “In the end they agreed to a quite strong convention, which is now in place. Why can’t we convince our governments to exclude fossil fuel lobbyists from negotiations in the climate sphere because there’s a conflict of interest?”

In the end, Martens is not so pessimistic: “I see a lot of social movements occurring in the last couple years as a counter-reaction to nationalism and the inactivity of our governments: Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, Black Lives Matter. It’s very necessary to put pressure on our governments, because they only respond to pressure from below.”

Jayati Ghosh sees some positive momentum, particularly around the growing trend of acknowledging the rights of nature. “Ecuador and Bolivia included the rights of Mother Earth in their constitutions,” she reports. “But there’s also a movement of civil society groups fighting for the rights of nature in many countries including Germany. If nature is a subject by law, then we can have better instruments to protect nature. We also have discussions at the global level about alternatives to GDP that focus on well-being.”

“Can the world save the world?” she asks. “Yes, the world can save the world. Will the world save the world? No, not at the current rate. Not unless people actually rise up and make sure that their governments act.”

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  1. Mikerw0

    I am in the camp that says climate change is a true, slow moving until it is fast moving, existential threat to existing civilization. Yet, anyone who expects any meaningful action to address it is, in my opinion, smoking something.

    Why? Simply put, our brains are explicitly wired against doing anything. Our brains spend the vast bulk of their time looking for immediate threats and deciding if they have to act. Now ask them to make changes that for much of the western world means a real or perceived degradation of lifestyle to address something that may happen over the next few decades and our brains basically so no way. It also explains why people over consume and under save.

    This is independent of the reality the elites control too many levers of power and are self interested as for their existence they have experienced the ability to use their resources to solve issues. Think leaving Manhattan for the Hamptons during COVID.

    There are innumerable things we could do that will bend the curve driven by governments — based on conservation. Insulate all homes. Zone for multifamily over single family. Use taxes for gas guzzlers and overly large homes with people basically don’t live in. We won’t.

    1. cnchal

      > . . . bend the curve driven by governments . . .

      One could logically conclude that the purpose of the war in Ukraine is to maximize the monetization of hydrocarbons produced in the US before the planet boils in the next century. My take on Wolf’s post.

      The next post is about moar chips, driven by government. Moar chips = moar data centers = moar power required to run everything = moar microsecond by microsecond monitioring of the peasants for the purpose of control and selling crap no one wants or needs. I suppose the argument for AI is that chips can be deployed to figure out how to avoid disaster but my suspicion is moar chips will bring on disaster at an accelerating rate.

      Monstrous capitalism is what’s driving government, the curve ahead is a hairpin and capitalism has ripped the brake pedal out in the name of efficiency and profit. The expense of the ensuing crash will be borne by the passengers, the drivers will get off free of all charges and profit from the wreckage.

      1. Jams O'Donnell

        “the drivers will get off free of all charges and profit from the wreckage”

        Doubtful. If the ecology is wrecked it will be wrecked for everyone. The rich are not especially known for being basic eat-insects-survivalists – rather they are cake, champagne and servant-supported sybaritic types.

        And if I for one, thought that I and my family were going to die while the rich survived, I would spend my last breath trying to destroy them – I’m sure others would be of the same mind. Even if the rich did manage to survive everyone else, the crops – if there are any crops – won’t reap themselves and turn into cakes, the robots won’t repair themselves (yet, anyway) – there will still be a proletariat to revolt.

        And finally, if the above was not true, a small society of still rich, robot supported greedy, untalented-in-any-real-sense elites would bore themselves to death within a generation.

        1. NoFreeWill

          The ethics of intergenerational change are more important here… the drivers are boomers who will be dead when the crash happens. But it still makes no sense unless you consider corporations inherently amoral perspectives. They are maximizing profits, and the boomers maxxing their paychecks, but to what purpose if they leave it to heirs who then inherit a wasteland.

        2. cnchal

          > Doubtful

          That isn’t the way it happens. There won’t be a bell rung when the ecological tipping point is behind us, which it already could be, and the rich will be bunkerfied while you scramble to feed your children and self.

          Consider recent history. Wall Street criminals run amok and cause the GFC and the President at the time volunteered to be their protector and pitchfork absorber, then groups of concerned citizens occupy small parks all over the country to hold the criminals to account and President Pitchfork Absorber has his police bust their heads and scatter them to the winds. Where was the mass citizen backup? No where, knowing any protest would result in their own smashed head by the cops.

          Fast forward to today and continuing the driving analogy, the bulk of the inflation is led by price increases from the Biggs, with their profit rates of 13.5% of GDP and climbing, the ones with their hands on the wheel and foot on the gas pedal, Wall Street fully involved and what does Powell do? Whip the passengers for the fault of the driver. Everyone is so cowed no one dare protest.

      2. some guy

        If moar chips will bring on disaster faster, then maybe moar chips is what we should support in the hope that moar chips will crash civilization before civilization can crash all the ecosystems.

    2. Kouros

      Utterly false. Apparently there is quite a lot of evidence that in the historical past people found the wisdom and fortitude to change political systems. See the two davids: The Dawn of Everything a new history of Humanity.

      1. Jeremy Grimm

        In the historical past people found the wisdom and fortitude to change political systems. Some societies did find such wisdom and fortitude, and some did not. The present worldwide Political and Economic system seems remarkably robust in fighting change from outside, and it seems intent on “dancing til the music stops” with those in power dying or somehow escaping before the unhappy consequences. I am still absorbing “The Dawn of Everything …” — a lot to think about. As I recall, “Dawn” reviewed many counter examples to the ideas about human nature perpetrated by Rousseau, Hobbes and others suggesting that the complexity of present Society and the Nature of Humankind doomed it TINA to the present Society. I cannot recall what remedy “Dawn” suggested if any.

    3. Kouros

      Utterly false. Apparently there is quite a lot of evidence that in the historical past people found the wisdom and fortitude to change political systems. See the two davids: The Dawn of Everything a new history of Humanity.

    4. NoFreeWill

      Organizing for eco-socialist revolutoin (aka the change necessary for war-level mobilisations) is the answer, but the tatters of the american left post COINTELPRO/neoliberalism are not in shape yet. The existential part of the threat will become sharply clear at some point as you say, and this may effectively create a huge influx of people power, but there needs to be structures/strategy ready to make use of it, or we’ll just end up with climate fascism where climate refugees are kept out with guns (already happening in Europe/elsewhere) on a massive scale.

      The irony is that the “perceived degragadation of lifestyle” is used to keep people in line all while their actual economic situation is being degraded and Americans are less happy than Mexicans for all our “wealth”… people think degrowth means no iPhones, but we might be better off without them anyways.

  2. mrsyk

    Anther relevant quote from Game of Thrones. I’ve been re-watching GoT (Six seasons only. I refuse to watch the seventh as it is not Martin’s work.). The back-stabbing power hungry cray cray is fun to compare to our contemporary political leaders and processes.

  3. Mr Robert Christopher

    With such an expensive solution to the perceived threat of Global Warming, well into the Trillions just for the West, we need to re-evaluate both the diagnosis and the treatment. This is needed, if only to persuade the majority of the World’s population to join the West in its untested treatment. Without them, it won’t work.

    In the UK at least, the main state run BBC will not, under any circumstances, allow any criticism of the Global Warming / Climate Change Agenda, and has done so for well over a decade. It has extended that to promote the NET Zero policies, again without allowing any contrarian views. The UK Government has acted in a similar manner.

    This is not Science, even though supporters say it is. :)

    Science is a mode of enquiry, and any findings are subject to scrutiny. If not, then it isn’t Science.

    The scrutiny needs to include those with differing views, from different related specialisations, not just those preselected by the main supporters, until, at least, there is a better understanding. The supporters’ uncooperative stance only raises concerns about the whole programme.

    For example, much more information has been gathered since the initial plans were made, yet the goal, and the means to get there, hasn’t been reassessed openly, in a Scientific manner.

    Here’s a recent audit of the treatment that needs to be discussed by the main parties:
    Challenging Net Zero with Science: Lindzen-Happer-CO2 Coalition Paper Released

    We have had over a decade without any constructive dialogue, and it needs to be conducted by the major players, openly, so it can be followed by those that would be financing the treatment.

    1. BrianF

      I found this guy to explain things in real scientific terms and realities. My personal belief is no matter what we need to build massive nuclear capacity. In addition I think replacing large trucks and heavy equipment with hydrogen combustion engines could lead to better results over time.


  4. Objective Ace

    When the societal cost is higher than private costs, prohibition is the answer

    I dont understand how you can just blow off the taxation route. That is another route to make the private cost higher then the societal cost. A 7 percent tax wouldn’t, but something like 700 or 7000 percent would. If Bezos’ time is really that valuable let him spend a couple extra billion each year. You could also structure the tax so that it kicks in progressively higher the more flying you do. That way your average Joe can travel once every couple of years if a funeral or something comes up. Although if we take that extra money the 1 percent is paying and subsidize the average person–through UBI/more time off or better infrastructure they may not need to fly anyways.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      First, I suggest you read Weitzman who establishes clearly why prohibition is the better approach when societal costs exceed private costs. Weitzman points out at the top that (of course!) economists would prefer to try to solve this problem with price (ie, taxes) while a layperson would prefer limiting quantities (prohibitions or other strict direct controls) and he explains why prohibition is better when societal costs are higher than private costs: https://www.sfu.ca/~wainwrig/Econ400/documents/weitzman-pricevsquantities-Rev-Econ_Stud.pdf

      Second, I doubt you have spent much time with the US tax code. This would have to be administered at the Federal level. We don’t have a Federal sales tax. “Bezos” has a zillion corporate entities and could easily game any charges that increase with usage. And that’s before the general ability of corporations and individuals to escape or minimize taxes.

      1. TimH

        Unfortunately prohibitions will never get agreed. The whole point of wealth is the privilege of stuff and services the proles don’t get. And the wealthy can afford the $20,000 RO system for whole-mansion clean water while the people in the apartments 5 miles away are poisoned by the same polluted feed.

        Another way to put is that the very rich don’t have their backs to the wall over Climate Change as an endemic issue, so they really don’t care. They can buy and isolate their way out, per Zardoz (with apologies for the visual of the red diaper).

      2. Objective Ace

        You’re talking about rearranging the economy and outright banning airplanes. I think, relative to that, changing the federal tax code shouldn’t be too difficult.

        And I’m not arguing that taxing is better*. I’m just saying – if you tax it so high you eliminate 90-99 percent of it, it is another plausible route to go.

        *it is interesting to consider what those extra tens of billions of dollars in revenue could be used for. Maybe it could actually be better?

  5. John R Moffett

    One small but meaningful step in the right direction is to offer great tax and other incentives for local, smaller scale farming to produce food locally everywhere that it is possible. The more food that is grown locally, the less that has to be shipped long distances. Since lots of people need jobs anyway, this would be one way to fix multiple problems at once. Further, if you offer better incentives for growing organically, to reduce chemical usage, you will further improve the situation. Lots of small changes like this would go a long way to mitigating some of the problems, but of course nothing like this would ever get through congress as Big Ag would block it. Capitalism hates any type of local self sufficiency.

  6. Cetra Ess

    Agree with your frustrations Yves, I think Derek Jenson captured it more than 10 years ago:


    Longer version:

    (I don’t own either video. In any case, NC commentariat would probably largely agree with DGR (Deep Green Resistance) messages of degrowth, deindustrialization and permaculture, so putting the name out there if interested.)

  7. Carolinian

    Human nature versus actual nature? There’s a case to be made that conservatism consists of accepting and celebrating “human nature” including its negative aspects like greed and competition while progressivism consists of pretending it doesn’t exist. In this latter formula “good” wars with “evil” and we must make sure the bad side loses or at least that we personally are good. Dropping the us versus them frame may be the first step in fighting AGW and big part of that would be leading by example rather than flying to Davos on your fuel gulping Gulfstream.

    They upgraded our local airport and I’m under the landing approach pattern as seemingly ever more elaborate private jets–some the size of commuter airliners–deliver their plutocrats to our fair burg. Meanwhile the middle income poors can’t afford a jet but compensate by craving hulking king cab pickup trucks as their own imitative status symbol. Here’s suggesting that when it comes to global warming the fish rots from the head big time. Al Gore give up your mansion.

  8. Mildred Montana

    Three things a government can do about climate change, in reverse order of severity:

    1. Moral suasion, which is an appeal to morality in order to influence or change behavior. Any government serious about the problem ought to advertise heavily in an attempt to heighten awareness, educate, and caution, thereby gradually modifying consumers’ attitudes. But not only that. One of the roles of good government is to set examples the rest of us will want to follow. In other words, it shouldn’t just 𝘵𝘦𝘭𝘭—it should 𝘴𝘩𝘰𝘸. Another form of moral suasion.

    2. Outside of legal sanctions, appropriate and targeted taxation is the most powerful tool a government possesses to shape behavior. In short, it can tax “bad” activities—sometimes perhaps punitively—in order to discourage or eliminate them.

    3. Finally, and almost as a last resort, “adopt war-level-mobilization approaches” (as Yves writes above). By that I assume she means such things as rationing, insistent appeals to buy “green” bonds, emergency laws, etc. If all else fails it might eventually and unfortunately come to that—if it’s not too late by then.

    1. Cetra Ess

      re: 3 War Level Mobilization

      At the very minimum we need to dramatically restrict unnecessary air and car travel, which is most air and car travel. An A320 typically uses two tonnes of jetfuel per hour, more as it climbs to cruising altitude, and planes are key polluters, yet curtailing travel will be a deeply unpopular move – people see it as their right, as a freedom of movement issue, it’s a primary method of vacation.

      We need to return to the age of sail for both passenger and cargo. And to do that, we need to accept that travel times will be greatly extended. And we need to find other ways for people to recreate than travel.

      Thanks to the pandemic we have widespread telecommuting and the virtual office so a key tool is in place which could take a bite out of the problem. Unfortunately, we’re regressing back to the office commute, so missing an opportunity to apply a Pandemic solution to another problem.

      1. Kouros

        What do you do with the suburbia in the US that commutes to work and back and has to drive for shopping?

  9. spud

    oh no, another starry eyed globalist, passing themselves off as the left. i got this far,

    One major reason for the failure of collective action is the persistent refusal to think beyond the nation-state.

    yet he admits that all international institutions have failed. so what does he want, perhaps a fascist hammer?

    its because of the neutering of the nation state, that wall street rules, and they could care less what happens to the planet and its inhabitants, no feeding will be interrupted.

    this type just cannot get past the fact, that what bill clintons free trade at the point of a gun, with all of its international orders, simply was and is a disaster for civil society, governance, and the environment. this was all quite predictable, even i predicted it.

    so as Yves points out, its the commerce stupid. steve keen rightly pointed this out to.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      At Common Dreams this post was titled: ” What If the World Cannot Save the World?: The crisis of international governance on a planet rife with emergencies. Climate change is just one of the many emergencies John Feffer sees facing the planet, and though it receives frequent mention it is peripheral to the chief concerns this post — mechanisms for effective world governance. After reading this post a couple of times I could not shake my impression that at most it offers a confused and confusing pastiche of critiques of current efforts to build world governance — primarily focusing on flaws in UN efforts at “multistakeholderism”. The post invokes most of the standard buzzwords and bugaboos: nationalism; Short-termism; Classism; “status-quo-ism,” compliments to Jayati Ghosh; growing inequality, “unsustainable” models of consumption and production, compliments to Jens Martens; debt restructuring, democratic funding; privatization, arguments about the inefficiencies of state enterprises, “ecosystem services”, disenfranchisement of indigenous communities; a New International Economic Order — with Corporate taxes, tax justice at the global level. Of course the the Investor-State Dispute settlement system does not escape mention.

      In conclusion, alas, “Everything else really depends on political will, which is not just governments suddenly seeing the light and becoming good. Political will is when governments are forced to respond to the people.” — compliments to Jayati Ghosh.

      I am at a loss how to respond to this incoherent hash. If the post included a little analysis, that might have given me something to chew on. As it is, I am left to wonder about how the UN efforts toward world governance fit with WEF efforts and the place of Corporate Cartels in their efforts to control both as the u.s. Empire flails about in tantrums of self-destruction.

      1. some guy

        If “world governance” is just a cover for World Economic Forum governance, then “world governance” should be prevented.

        One way to prevent it might be a deep and systematic revival of “national governance”. ” Really big” nations like Canada, America, Brazil, Russia . . . might be able to practice a form of National Greenism In One Country, to be achieved by eco-autarky, or at least eco-semiautarky. Smaller nations, like the nations of Europe, might be able to band together to practice Regional Greenism in One Region through their own regiona-wide eco-autarkazone.

        Trade should be Nationally Regulated Fair Trade, not trans-border de-regulated Free Trade. National Greenist countries should reconquer the right and the freedom to ban economic contact between themselves and other countries with lesser ecological and efficiency standards. That might start a forced march to the top instead of the current forced race to the bottom we all get to live inside of.

  10. Clint Olsen Wright

    Thanks Yves for your opening comments about this article. Any climate warning essay that is filled with “we must, have to, should, need, mobilise, agree” as necessary solutions, my mental reply is “we won’t!”. Dick Cheney summed it up succinctly once: “…the American (developed world) lifestyle is not negotiable.”

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I read your comment as agreement with the statement that the world cannot save the world from climate change. The loss of polar ice is but one of many events that will have catastrophic impacts on Humankind. The present heating of the Arctic pushed weather patterns Southward toward the u.s. providing the West and Midwest with their interesting Winter weather. Chaotic weather can have impacts on crop yields and threatens catastrophe in the West when the heavy rains hit the snow pack. Between sea level rise and the increasing power of Hurricanes the East coast may see some interesting events in its near future.

      The level of CO2 in the atmosphere is already high enough to cause the events mentioned, but many of these impacts are part of the so-called climate fast feedbacks. There are also slow feedbacks — and the oceans have stored and are storing a tremendous amount of heat energy slowing finding its way into the climate systems. Even if the CO2 levels were magically lowered, the heat energy in the oceans would remain and continue their impacts. It is too late to do anything but adapt to the changes that are coming. Current actions, by governments or individuals, might be able to reduce the severity of those impacts, as long as we have not crossed any truly critical tipping points.

  11. Sue inSoCal

    As usual, Yves’s intro is better than the piece. This can has been kicked down the road so far, I have no optimism that we have the collective global will to collaborate to turn this sinking ship of climate disaster around. We could, but we won’t. I seem to recall a comment Bush fils made about Exxon after I read Steve Coll’s 2013 book, Private Empire. I am paraphrasing but it was something like “heck no one messes with [Exxon]. They’re like their own country” or some such. (Maybe someone remembers. I looked.) Think these oil producers are going to take any responsibility for this burning world? I reckon not…

    1. Kouros

      I think the main point of the piece is that we need a different political and governance structure.

      The question is, ok, if we have actual democracy within nations and between nations, will the outcome be different, will people vote appropriately ((in a presumably unhindered vote)) ?

      1. some guy

        If America had real democracy, how many Americans might vote to defect America from out of the Rules Based Forcey Free Trade Order? Even in the teeth of the anti-Democracy we have, just enough people were able to vote for National Seccession from the Rules Based Forcey Free Trade Order to get Trump elected over Clinton.

        ( For some reason the elites didn’t see Trump as being as much of a threat as they saw Sanders as being, so they didn’t try pre-rigging Trump out of the nomination they way they pre-rigged Sanders out of the nomination . . . twice.)

    2. some guy

      What do people think of the theory that the Merchants of Fossil delayed and denied effective action just long enough to guarantee that the 11th-hour changes needed to protect a human-livable situation would be so radical and wrenching that the world would never accept them? That ” running out the clock” was exactly the goal the Merchants of Fossil had for successfully delaying and denying action till now?

  12. jax

    I admit that I skimmed this article because, as much as I try to hide it from the young in my family, I’m already a doomer. Hence these kinds of articles detailing why no strategy is going to work, from local efforts to international agreements, are depressingly frequent and always similar. In the end we’ve just run out of runway.
    Sapiens have been a grand though short-lived experiment. For the rest of my time on earth I’m working towards #JustCollapse. I don’t expect that to be successful either.

  13. Verifyfirst

    In case you imagined there was any hope:

    DTE has 2.3 million customers in southeast Michigan and the Thumb region. 6,000 customers in DTE Electric Co.’s service territory generate renewable power for their homes and send energy leftovers to the grid.

    It’s the same with new home construction–driving around Ann Arbor, Mi, all the subs going up are built the same way they ever were…..

    I thought it was pretty funny when the mayor of Ann Arbor, last fall while the city was discussing a ban on gas in new construction, hustled to add a gas line extension in his home to accommodate the new gas fireplace he wanted to install. He saw no issue, he said, since what he really wanted was a wood fireplace.

  14. Pookah Harvey

    Liberal Democracy- A political ideology supporting competitive multiparty elections.

    Aristotle- It is accepted as democratic when public offices are allocated by lot; and as oligarchic when they are filled by election.

    Oligarchy- government by the few, especially despotic power exercised by a small and privileged group for corrupt or selfish purposes.


    Any solutions for sustainability using the method of Liberal Democracy will only allow for the sustainability of profits. As long as the Rich are in control and coming up with the solutions they will be the wrong solutions.

  15. Susan the other

    Just off the top of my head, since we have achieved all this wonderful free trade, corporation personhood, and widespread smuggling and illicit distribution, and most importantly the free movement of capital along with lots of tax evasion, etc. I’m thinking the only way to control environmental sustainability is to go full statist. Start at the bottom supplying the absolute necessities for survival directly to the population, then do the draconian things like prohibit any extra consumption or transportation. After a few months of panic and depression we will all get used to it and then we can take other steps to establish new economies that preserve the natural environment and protect it from profiteering. I don’t think there is a place for capitalism until we set and enforce sustainable rules, and then only in a very limited scope.

  16. Synoia

    It is easy to project the outcome: Social collapse and a massive reduction on the numbers of humans on the planet.

    Our mechanic civilization has no remedy for Global Warming/Climate Change,

    If there is any accepted plan, or even an outline of such a plan, or comprehensive solution, which I doubt, please post it.

    1. some guy

      Since there is no accepted plan, different people can go ahead and submit different dream plans, and see if any of those plans gain acceptance.

  17. Willie

    According to the World Bank,

    “Debt is a critical form of financing for the sustainable development goals.”

    And who, pray tell, will manage that?

  18. steelhead23

    I have recently been contemplating how our institutions are poorly adapted to a changing climate. My focus is fisheries, which are in decline due to climate change effects on ocean ecology and the difficulty our interest-based decision systems are having in sustainably managing harvest. Facts become subordinate to interest power. Slogans like “Global warming is a gubmint gimmick” trump peer-reviewed research.

    Much like the recent pandemic, climate change is an experiment in which I would prefer to be an observer, not a test subject, but there are no climate change protecting masks, and no vaccines. We are indeed, all in this together.

  19. Willie

    In the struggle to promote the ideology of defeating a discourteous climate change
    George Soros is its most formidable ally.

    1. Willie

      Alexander Dugin describes this phenomena in an essay parsing Soros’ speech at the recent Munich Conference in February. You can find it in the Postil Magazine.

      I may share a bit of Dugin’s “angst” since I, too, have been prohibited, in speech, as well as the ability to provide for my family, by certain institutions in my pursuits that are very close to the ones that Dugin criticizes.

      I can forgive the former act, but not the latter. It makes me rather vehement on occasion, though I strive to be effective. I can only hope to be correct.

      Therefore, I sometimes prioritize my focus. Believe it or not, sometimes that action can be dangerous.

      lol! … but I’m still here, ridiculous though I may be.

  20. WillD

    The world won’t save itself from climate change, simply because the human race is incapable of coming together, putting aside its many disagreements, and co-operating at anywhere near the scale needed to solve the problems.

    We have never demonstrated the ability to co-operate on any major emergency without one group or another exploiting it to their own advantage and sabotaging the efforts of others. Just look at Turkiye and Syria right now, with western countries refusing to lift sanctions to help with the earthquake relief efforts.

    For the rich and powerful, politics and money are more important than lives. These people would rather the planet burn than use even a fraction of their money and power to help save it.

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