An antidote to climate despair

14 November 2022 – Dire predictions about the impending collapse of civilization have become almost common place. Okay, doomers – enough.

Yes, humanity faces existential risks. In the coming decades, billions of people in the world’s poorest economies will be hit the hardest. It is now more likely than not that the planet will cross multiple climate tipping points.

A challenging future undoubtedly awaits, with rolling shocks shaking governments everywhere to their core. And, yes, we have only ourselves – or, more precisely, the wealthiest among us – to blame. But is a collapse of our freewheeling, endlessly inventive, often confounding civilization inevitable? Absolutely not.

As Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, told world leaders gathered in Egypt this week at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, “We know what it is to remove slavery from our civilization, to find a vaccine within two years for a pandemic, to put a man on the moon.” But the only solution to the current crisis offered by politicians is economic growth. But while growth is essential to pull the poorest countries out of poverty, resilient societies will be forged not by ever-greater wealth, but by greater social cohesion, good governance, and the capacity to innovate.

Two years ago, we launched the Earth4All initiative, an international collaborative effort by economists, scientists, and advocates to examine policy solutions that steer humanity away from collapse and toward resilience. We present our findings in a new book, Earth for All: A Survival Guide for Humanity.

We explore two scenarios: Too Little, Too Late and The Giant Leap. In both scenarios, the global economy grows throughout this century. In the former, the rich grow richer, leaving the poor further behind. Social tensions rise. Governments struggle to deal with major shocks. The risk of regional collapse grows every decade. We can be certain that on our current path, the global increase in average temperature is likely to hit a catastrophic 2.5° Celsius, putting the world in grave danger. This is the path we are on.

But it is not the only path. With extraordinary effort, societies can transform themselves into “well-being economies” that are more resilient to shocks. Social tensions fall. Global temperature stabilizes at around 2°C. This is the Giant Leap.

Earth4All can trace its origins to the Club of Rome-commissioned report The Limits to Growth, published 50 years ago. Back then, scientists used early computer models to show that Earth’s finite resources would eventually buckle under the weight of material consumption. Food production would fall, followed by a precipitous decline in population. At the time, the conclusion that pushing beyond the limits of the planet could lead to collapse shocked many people. Over the last 50 years, the world has followed the report’s worst-case scenario, and we are beginning to see deep fractures in Earth systems and within societies.

But we believe our future will be built on economic optimism, not despair. Our analysis concludes that any strategy to build fair and resilient societies must address poverty, inequality, gender imbalances, food insecurity, and energy access. The transformation we need hinges on tackling all of them together.

Redistributing wealth is needed to rebuild trust in democratic systems, which is essential to broaden political support for bold decisions. The policies we propose, including progressive income and wealth taxes, international tax alignment, and a universal basic dividend, would ensure that the richest 10% will have less than 40% of national incomes by around 2030 and further reduce inequality beyond this date. Addressing wealth and income inequality must also be closely linked to reining in the disproportionate greenhouse-gas emissions and biosphere consumption of the wealthiest. This is why a fair price on carbon is a smart way to redistribute wealth and cut emissions.
Without profound change, climate chaos, food insecurity, and poverty are likely to drive conflict and social turmoil in vulnerable regions, with spillover effects everywhere. As Mottley warned in Sharm El-Sheikh, we can expect a billion refugees by 2050. This is a reasonable estimate, given that, without immediate deep emissions cuts, the largely uninhabitable zones around the equator are expected to expand in the coming decades, encompassing heavily populated areas. High-risk countries include some of the most fragile and vulnerable states on Earth: Egypt, Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the Philippines.

Today, it may seem the world is as far from an Earth for All future as ever. But we found some room for optimism. We may have already reached a positive social tipping point: citizens want change. Our global survey finds that 74% of people in G20 countries want their governments to reform economic systems to prioritize well-being and the planet over a singular focus on growth and profits.
Our civilization often does the right thing when we have exhausted all other alternatives. This point has now been reached. Humanity’s future on Earth will be vastly more peaceful, prosperous, and secure if we do everything in our power to rebuild our economies to maximize well-being and planetary resilience rather than shareholder value.

First published on Project Syndicate 

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