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Extreme Wealth is a Planet Killer

We either keep fossil fuels in the ground, or we fry.

That’s the conclusion of another new blockbuster study on climate change, this one from the National Academy of Sciences. Our fossil-fuel industrial economy, the study details, has made for the fastest climate changes our Earth has ever seen.

“If we think about the future in terms of the past, where we are going is uncharted territory for human society,” notes the study’s lead author, Kevin Burke from the University of Wisconsin.

“In the roughly 20 to 25 years I have been working in the field,” adds his colleague John Williams, “we have gone from expecting climate change to happen, to detecting the effects, and now we are seeing that it’s causing harm” — as measured in property damage and deaths, in intensified flooding and fires.

The last time climate on Earth saw nearly as drastic and rapid a climate shift, relates another new study, came some 252 million years ago, and that shift unfolded over the span of a few thousand years. That span of time saw the extinction of 96 percent of the Earth’s ocean species and almost as devastating a loss to terrestrial creatures.

Other scientific studies over this past year have made similarly alarming observations, and together all these analyses provided an apt backdrop for this past December’s United Nations climate change talks in Poland.

Climate change activists hoped these talks would stiffen the global resolve to seriously address climate change. But several nations had other ideas. The United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait all refusedto officially “welcome” the recent dire findings of a blue-ribbon Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, essentially throwing a huge monkey-wrench into efforts to protect our Earth and ourselves.

What unites these four recalcitrant nations? One key characteristic stands out: The United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait all just happen to rate among the world’s most unequal nations.

Just a coincidence? Absolutely not, suggests a new analysis from the Civil Society Equity Review coalition, a worldwide initiative that counts in its ranks scores of groups committed to averting a climatic cataclysm.

Limiting future global temperature rises, this coalition notes, will require “disruptive shifts” and heighten public anxieties. People will tolerate these disruptions, but only if they believe that everyone is sharing in the sacrifice — the wealthy and powerful included.

Environmental policy makers typically define the wealthy at the level of the nation state. They focus on the relationships between wealthy nations and developing nations still struggling to amass wealth. Wealthier nations, the conventional climate change consensus holds, have a responsibility to help poorer nations meet the environmental challenges ahead.

But the wealthy have the power to shirk those responsibilities — unless we expand our focus from inequality between nations to inequality within nations as well.

The more unequal a wealthy society, the coalition explains, the greater the power of the rich — and the corporations they run — to ignore their debt to Mother Earth.

And the economic inequality their wealth engenders, researchers add, has “much to do with the dark character of the current political moment,” referring to the growing xenophobia and racism that make serious environmental aid from developed to developing nations ever less likely.

The world’s wealthiest people and their corporations, left to their own devices, would for the most part rather not bear any sort of significant sacrifice. That’s all the more reason to address the inequality that bestows so much power upon them.

“Addressing climate change effectively and justly,” sums up Basav Sen, the climate policy director at the Institute for Policy Studies, “requires us to transform the unjust social and economic systems that gave us climate change in the first place.”

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Sam Pizzigati writes on inequality for the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest book:The Case for a Maximum Wage  (Polity). Among his other books on maldistributed income and wealth: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970  (Seven Stories Press). 

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