Politics Between Hope and Despair
Climate change is a problem for all of us. But not equally so. And we're not equally to blame for the existential conundrum we face.
I’m not exactly sure how you’re meant to feel, let alone respond, when you read a story like the BBC’s reveal last week that the United Arab Emirates, host of the COP 28 climate summit, has been planning to use the occasion to make oil deals. Days later, the BBC also broke the news that the UAE is planning on ramping up oil production in the coming years. They’re not alone.
The standard apologist — or realist, to be charitable — reply is that we’ll continue to need oil in the years to come, and somebody has to supply it. That was the UAE’s argument, at least. It’s similar to what we hear in Canada from the oil and gas industry. As a corollary, each adds that they’re thinking about, working on, praying for, investing in, or shifting towards renewables. But in the meantime, there are homes to be heated and beaks to keep wet.
Of course, the oil and gas industry has been resistant to climate solutions (or even admitting climate change is happening) for decades. The industry and many of the nations that benefit from it, including Canada, have been reaping profits they’re disinclined to forego. It’s no surprise we get the politics and policies we do in this scenario. As Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
The oil and gas “need” that industry and its enabling powers claim is at least in part an induced need, or an industry-protected need, rather than a natural or inevitable one. The whole thing is in part a big con, and we’re the marks. But to the extent governments have been unable or unwilling to call it out or rein it in, it’s become “common sense” that we need increased production to get us to and through the transition to renewable energy. Thus the transition slows and the rate of global warming persists towards the point the disaster.
Despite best efforts from oil producers and their crony nations, renewable energy is growing. According to the International Energy Agency, last year saw a near 8 percent rise in renewable energy supply (including solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, and ocean energy). Still, that leaves the share of renewables as an energy source at 5.5 percent, with nuclear and hydro energy adding another roughly 10 percent, depending on which stats you cite. In the long run, oil, gas, and coal are declining as energy sources, but they’re still dominant.
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It looks like the world is headed towards, and beyond, the 1.5 degree warming threshold past which the climate change shit will truly hit the fan. Indeed, there’s even talk of us hitting 3 degrees of warming, which would be beyond devastating. An NPR assessment of what the scale of warming would look like in the United States is a quick-read nightmare jaunt that makes you want to study the Mad Max film series for tactical training tips. There’s no shortage of doomsday articles about the disaster of 3 degrees of warming — the extreme weather events, the food system collapse, the geopolitical conflicts, the surge in migration, the rained-out baseball games. Neither the planet nor our world system of nation states is prepared to manage any of this.
The tricky thing here — beyond addressing the most significant threat to humankind in our history — is managing the tension between despair and hope. Despair is the natural response to the news about climate change and the failure of our leaders to sufficiently tackle it in time. Hope is a more effective and productive approach to dealing with the problem, since it encourages to do something.
It can be at once objectively true that hope is a better frame, a better way to call us to action, and yet forcing ourselves to choose hope feels like a rip off for a variety of reasons. For instance, rich people and rich countries are mostly at fault for climate change. They’re the culprits. They’re the guilty parties. Canada is one of the worst offenders as a top per-capita emitter alongside the United States, Australia, Russia, and a handful of other states.
Total emissions sees, unsurprisingly, China lead the pack, followed by the U.S., E.U., and India, but key takeaway from emissions data is that rich people and states contribute far, far, far more than their share to climate change. In the U.S., the richest 10 percent account for roughly 40 percent of the country’s emissions. And it’s even worse than you may think. As Laura Paddison put it for CNN, a recent report found that “super-emitters” make up a class of pollution-hogs damning the planet that beggars believe. These super-emitters are
almost exclusively among the wealthiest top 0.1% of Americans, concentrated in industries such as finance, insurance and mining, and produce around 3,000 tons of carbon pollution a year. To put that in perspective, it’s estimated people should limit their carbon footprint to around 2.3 tons a year to tackle climate change.
What do you even say to that?
It feels beyond ridiculous to be told to be hopeful — and to do our small part — while those in charge fail to deliver the climate leadership we need to tackle this existential threat, a threat whose effects will be felt the most by those least responsible for bringing it about. It feels beyond ridiculous for us to invest in solutions while the richest of the rich outpollute us thousands of times over. It feels something beyond enraging to be lectured by the Davos and COP jet-set who, indeed, even benefit from industries that contribute to climate change. I’m not saying we shouldn’t take public transit or invest in heat pumps or consume less beef, etc., etc., etc. I’m saying it feels like a massive slap in the face and a rip-off, especially since the worst offenders aren’t giving up their jets or their oil and gas industry share dividends.
Reading about the distribution of responsibility for climate change, we may be inclined to move beyond hope and despair to anger. How else are we supposed to feel but angry? Angry that we’ve been lied to, angry that we’ve been used, angry that we’ve been condemned to suffer disproportionately while the wealthy and elite rip up the planet, squander its resources, and make off like bandits in the process.
I don’t have answers to the problems I’ve discussed here, at least none I can fit into a single post on a single blog on a single afternoon. My goal here isn’t to talk solutions, but to do my small part to recognize and affirm your right to be angry and to feel despair as we stare down climate change and struggle with its effects.
You may choose to be hopeful about what we can do, about mitigation efforts and our progress in the fight to arrest every increase of a fraction of a degree of warming. I don’t begrudge anyone that. But anger and despair are rational, reasonable, and legitimate responses to the international and class politics, policies, and systems that have led us to this point in our history, and which threaten to upend our lives and livelihoods.
But perhaps there is an answer I can offer after all. In that despair and anger, there may be hope of a sort, the hope that we can mobilize those feelings and the interests of the many to remake a society in which we collectively insist on a more just, equitable, and sustainable path for all of us — and a political and economic regime to ensure we stay on it.