From being a fringe issue climate change has apparently become completely mainstream. News bulletins are incomplete without a report on some new sign of global warming.
The general view seems to be that we’re all in the same boat, and must all, by recycling our rubbish or cutting down on foreign travel, do our bit to help save the planet. But there are various indications that the real picture is quite different.
One of the more unfathomable is the deluge of technical criticism directed at the official British review of the economics of climate change by Sir Nicholas Stern, a senior Treasury official.
Many economists have attacked Stern because he dropped the standard assumption made in mainstream economics that people care less about the future than they do about the present.
They argue that, so long as we stick to this assumption, the fact that various sorts of catastrophe will afflict the world in 50 years time may matter less than the money we would have to spend now to prevent these catastrophes taking place.
Stern quotes the mathematician and philosopher Frank Ramsay who says that the idea that we should care less about the future than about the present is “ethically indefensible”. It is the philosophy of King Louis XV of France, whose response to the misery of the French people in the 18th century was to say, “After me, the deluge.”
Well, now we know the deluge is coming. The fact that Stern’s eminently moderate report should come under such attack is a sign that plenty of rich people don’t want to pay the cost of preventing it, whether through higher taxes or changed lifestyles.
Tony Blair, always quick to defend the interests of the rich, was quite representative in his grumpy response to journalists’ questions about the carbon footprint left by his family’s holiday which involved sponging off one of the Bee Gees in Florida.
The rich’s selfishness may seem mad, if we think we all really are in the same boat. But in fact we know the impact of climate change will be uneven. It will affect the global South more than the North.
This is in itself a huge global injustice, since the North is responsible for a far higher proportion of carbon dioxide emissions than the South. Nevertheless, spokespeople for the oil and mining corporations still repeat the hypocritical mantra that they won’t worry about their emissions till China and India start controlling theirs.
The world’s rich are, of course, far more concentrated in the North than in the South. This creates an automatic buffer against many of the worst consequences of climate change. But they can also use their wealth to protect themselves further.
Last month I took part in the World Social Forum in Nairobi, Kenya. The opening march started from Kibera, which has the reputation of being the biggest slum in Africa.
While we were waiting for the march to begin, a helicopter flew over that vast expanse of poverty. A Kenyan journalist told us it belonged to ex-president Moi, whose mansion nestles behind fortress walls nearby.
The rich can insulate themselves from the sufferings of the poor. As airport congestion has got worse, the private jet business has been booming. So senior executives can jump the queue, in the process increasing carbon dioxide emissions.
The rich also create their own special enclaves. One of the most bizarre is the Gulf emirate of Dubai, busy transforming itself into a complex of hotels, malls, and theme parks for the world’s rich – what Mike Davis calls “a vast gated community, the ultimate Green Zone”. The environmental costs of this mega-Vegas for the elite, perched on the edge of the Arabian desert, must be colossal.
This sick logic is universal. The rich depend on the capitalist economic system that, driven by the blind pursuit of profit, is responsible for the process of environmental destruction.
They have no interest in reversing this process – unless doing so can create profit. But they do have an interest in protecting themselves from the consequences – usually in ways that add yet more environmental damage. Stopping the machinery of destruction will take place against the bitter resistance of the rich and powerful of the world.