Note: I began designing this table-runner just before the COVID-19 pandemic blew up in the United States. In the time I have been embroidering it, rates of death and misery have soared while wealth generation and carbon emissions (the two subjects of this work) have ended their decades-long rise and have plummeted. A deadly virus is a terrible means of slowing greenhouse warming. Whenever we come out the other side of the pandemic, we must pursue a rapid, humane, ecologically sound, and guaranteed-effective course of action to drive greenhouse emissions down to zero. Here’s how.
The color of money is the color of calamity
This table-runner illustrates, from left to right, the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration from 1946 to the present. Each year is represented by two adjacent stripes: one in gradually deepening shades of green representing that year’s U.S. gross domestic product (adjusted for inflation) and one in increasingly intense shades of yellow-orange-red, representing CO2 concentration.
There are nine shades for GDP and eleven for CO2, with shades indicating roughly equal intervals of increase in each. The shades of both types of stripes darken as the years go by, in accordance with the increases that occurred in both GDP and CO2. (For hi-res, zoomed-in images of the table-runner, see here.)
The shades of yellow-orange-red in the table-runner darken more and more rapidly as the years pass, illustrating how emissions of CO2 accelerated as industrial output and fossil-fuel use rose more rapidly throughout the world. The concentration of CO2 rose at an annual rate of about 0.8 ppm from 1945 to 1980; 1.5 ppm from 1980 to 1995; and 2.1 ppm from 1995 to 2019. (The United States accounted for almost 20 percent of the rise in atmospheric CO2 during those years.)
If two such numbers (“variables”) increase or decrease together over time, that does not prove that one causes the other to change. But growing economies do require growing inputs of energy and other resources and emit growing quantities of CO2. Thoughout the past century, anywhere you look around the world, GDP and CO2 emissions have risen (and sometimes fallen) together.
Increases in GDP and CO2 over the past three decades have had one easily identifiable cause in common: the reluctance of governments to curb the carbon emissions of the world’s largest economies for fear of slowing the growth of their own GDP.
Growth was non-negotiable
In the year 1700, the concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere was about 270 parts per million (ppm). At the end of World War II, following a century of increasing fossil-fuel use, CO2 was up to 310 ppm. From there, the increase accelerated.
Carbon dioxide concentration reached 339 ppm in 1980, but its rise still was not making headlines. By 1988, though, worldwide concern had grown to the point that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established to study the situation. That year, the CO2 concentration was 350 ppm (a figure that would become a climate rallying cry twenty years later when climate scientist James Hansen and colleagues concluded that a world “similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted” would become impossible unless CO2 is driven back down to 350 ppm or below.)
Through the three decades since 1988 (in the table-runner, that starts at about the point of transition from light green to darker green stripes), progressively louder alarms have been going off. But any serious efforts to curb emissions were stymied by a consensus among the United States and other governments that the only available course of action was inaction. They feared that if the world were to take effective action on greenhouse emissions, economic growth would be hampered. And to them, that was unacceptable.
As the years rolled on, the accumulation of wealth proceeded on schedule with just a few interruptions, while greenhouse gases continued to accumulate in the sky above:
1992: At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is agreed upon. At the summit, President George H.W. Bush claims for his country the right to pursue uninterrupted growth, whatever the impact on the Earth. He infamously declares, “The American way of life is not up for negotiation.” That year, the U.S. GDP stands at $6.5 trillion; atmospheric CO2 has risen seventeen points over the preceding twelve years and stands at 356 ppm.
1997: The Kyoto Protocol is adopted. The U.S. Senate refuses to ratify Kyoto, with Larry Craig (R-ID) declaring that President Bill Clinton’s signing of the treaty is “the first time in history that an American president has allowed foreign interests to control and limit the growth of the U.S. economy.” GDP: $8.6 trillion, CO2: 363 ppm.
2001: Clinton’s signature remains on the Kyoto pact until midyear, when the newly elected president, George W. Bush, erases it, claiming that the treaty “would have wrecked our economy.” GDP: $10.6 trillion. CO2: 370 ppm.
2008: United Nations officials and economists propose a Green New Deal to pull the world economy out of the Great Recession. The UN Environment Program’s executive director declares, “The new, green economy would provide a new engine of growth, putting the world on the road to prosperity again.” U.S. GDP: $14.7 trillion. Atmospheric CO2: 385 ppm.
2015: The Obama Administration’s climate negotiators, fearful of constraining the nation’s economy, significantly weaken the Paris Agreement on climate. They successfully demand that a single word in the document be changed, so that the United States and other developed countries will agree that they “should” rather than “shall” undertake economy-wide quantified emission reductions. GDP: $18.2 trillion. CO2: within one-half part per million of 400.
2017: Donald Trump withdraws U.S. support from the Paris Agreement, saying, “This agreement is less about the climate and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the United States.” He uses the word “climate” only twice more in his statement, both times dismissively, while using the word “economy” or “economic” nineteen times. GDP: 19.5 trillion. CO2: 405 ppm.
2020: The COVID-19 pandemic leads to a worldwide contraction of economic activity, and energy consumption plummets. On Earth Day, the World Meterological Organization predicts that global CO2 emissions will fall by 6 percent that year, the steepest annual decline since World War II. However, the WMO also calls for a “stimulus package” to help the global economy grow once the pandemic is over—a move that would be sure to accelerate the rebound of CO2 emissions. At the start of the pandemic, GDP is $21.7 trillion, and CO2 concentration is up to 415 ppm.
In the forty-three years between World War II and creation of the IPCC (which occupy the left and center portions of this table-runner), nothing was done about the slow accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere, because governments didn’t recognize it as a problem. Through the following thirty-two years, however, emissions accelerated and catastrophe loomed ever nearer. Yet even with warnings flashing brighter orange and then deeper red, emissions were still left largely unrestrained. That failure resulted, and still results, from the single-minded focus of Big Business and its backers in governments worldwide on limitless wealth accumulation.
Priti Gulati Cox (@PritiGCox) is an artist and the creator of the Sidewalk Museum of Congress outside the office of Kansas 1st District Congress member @rogermarshallmd in Salina, Kansas, where she and Stan live.
Stan Cox (@CoxStan) is the author of the new book The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can (City Lights, May 5).