How Inequality Hurts

Beyond Kyoto: Time to Switch Targets?

To curb climate change, suggests a new report from a top-notch global scientific team, we really ought to start focusing on rich people, not rich nations.

By Sam Pizzigati

The world’s most influential nations had their experts on climate change in Italy last week. Their goal: to get a head start on figuring out what to do after 2012, the year the current global greenhouse gas emission limits in the Kyoto Protocol expire.

That head start will have to wait. Last week’s talks made little progress. Environmentally, the world still stands starkly divided — between the “rich” nations of the developed world and the “poor” nations still developing.

The basic conundrum: The rich nations have historically dumped far more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than the world’s poor nations. But the poor nations, as they develop, are catching up. If they continue to develop — along current lines — the Earth will soon start frying even if the rich nations do significantly cut back on what they’re dumping.

So the rich nations want the poor to start limiting their emissions, something they haven’t been expected to do up to now. The poor nations don’t see such limits as appropriate. Why should people in poor nations, they ask, have to accept a lower standard of life than people in rich nations?

Negotiators have so far found no “fair” solution to this standoff, and they won’t find any workable solution — suggests a just-released study from the National Academy of Sciences — unless they stop talking about rich and poor nations and start focusing on rich and poor people.

Rich and poor, the new study points out, live in every nation, and the rich — wherever they live — pound a much greater carbon footprint than the poor.

“Rich people’s lives tend to give off more greenhouse gases,” as Reuters climate change correspondent Deborah Zabarenko explained last week, “because they drive more fossil-fueled vehicles, travel frequently by air, and live in big houses that take more fuel to heat and cool.”

And the richest of the rich, adds Zabarenko, leave the biggest footprint of all: “Yachts do it. Limousines do it. Even air-conditioned mansions by the sea do it. The trappings of wealth tend to emit lots of climate-warming carbon dioxide.”

The seven scientists behind the new study — from the United States, Italy, and the Netherlands — want the next climate change protocol to base national emission targets on the number of each nation’s resident rich. The protocol would set these targets by calculating “the excess emissions of all ‘high emitter’ individuals in a country,” with “high emitters’’ defined as “those whose emissions exceed a universal individual emission cap.”

“Our approach,” the scientists note, “is designed to blend parsimony, fairness, and pragmatism — treat equally those with the same emissions.”

That approach would give developing nations a powerful incentive to develop more equal economies. The more inequality they tolerate, the more they let income and wealth concentrate, the more emission restrictions they would face.

By contrast, the more equal that developing nations become, the more they encourage wealth — and power — to accumulate in the pockets of average people, the better the odds that their governments will make the investments that can raise living standards without stomping a heavy carbon footprint.

Those governments might endeavor, for instance, to make available for people of modest means “well-built apartment buildings equipped with efficient appliances and served by efficient mass transit systems.”

If emission standards focused on rich people, already developed nations would also have an incentive to limit top-heavy concentrations of income and wealth. The more equal their distributions, the fewer restrictions.

And that greater equality, notes the Equality Trust, a campaign led by British epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson, would pay immediate environmental benefits. One example: More equal developed nations, the data show, recycle a much greater share of their wastes than their more unequal counterparts.

But greater equality, in the end, would have an even broader impact on efforts to slow global warming. To gain public support, lifestyle changes that have the potential to reduce this warming need to be seen as fair. But the general public will be slow to lend that support, to change daily consumption patterns, so long as the rich consume so much more of everything.

Preventing “runaway global warming,” as the Equality Trust warns, simply won’t be possible “without a sense of shared participation in a common cause.”

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality.

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