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Can We Afford a Fair Global Climate Transition?

Mills along the lower Columbia. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

How to create the political backing for the international effort necessary to achieve a fair and rapid global climate transition, even though that support would be properly denominated not in billions of dollars but rather in trillions, or even as percentages of Gross World Product?

One eye-opening approach is to proceed by way of comparison – to show that the likely costs of the climate transition, great though they may be, are small when considered against the alternatives, and entirely affordable when considered against other, even larger expenditures, which we routinely accept as inevitable, even though they are often ill-conceived and sometimes criminally frivolous, and tend increasingly to be self-destructive on a monumental scale.

In a way, we all already know this, for we never tire of pointing out that the damage costs of inaction will far exceed the costs of any plausible mobilization. But other comparisons are also helpful, comparisons against the sums mobilized for other purposes, and also against the trillions that are wasted, on every front, when luxury consumption sets the terms by which expense is justified.

The good news here is that such comparisons are now routinely being made. Since the 2009 global financial crisis, and especially since the COVID pandemic, large governmental and inter-governmental financial interventions have, in the face of cascading emergencies, become almost routine. In both cases, very large numbers of people, and even significant fractions among the political elites, have been jolted into understanding that major mobilizations of public finance are sometimes absolutely, indisputably, necessary.

However, it’s still not possible to talk honestly and openly about the scale of the climate finance that’s actually necessary, or to keep the formal climate finance conversation from devolving into one in which private investment gets all the airtime. To be sure, there are many people who believe that transformational levels of public finance will be necessary to stabilize the climate system. But many of them also accommodate themselves to a policy world in which, so the thinking goes, the challenges of public finance can be safely set aside. In fact, public finance, and public planning and coordination more generally, will be absolutely necessary to the economy-wide transformations the climate crisis requires. Major debates remain before this point is so clearly established that it can no longer be reasonably contested, but at the same time, the conversation has clearly shifted. “Trillion is the new billion,” and this helps a great deal.

The key point here is that money is not the real problem. Keynes’ declaration made during World War II, “anything we can actually do, we can afford”, applies here as well. That said, the institutional and political challenges of providing the public finance and technology support necessary to achieve 1.5°C would be immense. The issues here sprawl, but I think it’s fair to say that Keynes would also have considered them to be entirely solvable.

For the moment, here are a few useful points of comparison:

Environmentally destructive subsidies. Every day, governments spend massive amounts of money to subsidize the destruction of our world. How much money? If you count not only fossil subsidies but a variety of subsidies for environmentally destructive activities, across a range of sectors including agriculture, forestry, water management, and fisheries, activities leading not only to climate destabilization but also biodiversity loss, land degradation and global inequality, the latest expert estimate appears to lie north of $1.8 trillion a year, or about 2% of Gross World Product (GWP), all of which goes into directly supporting unsustainable production and consumption.

Of this $1.8 trillion, about $640 billion comes as explicit subsidies to the global fossil industry. Actual cash. But there’s more to this story, as far as fossil fuel subsidies are concerned, in part because some of it comes as consumption subsides designed to protect the poor (a fact the fossil cartel takes full advantage of, in its endless claims to be a great benefactor of humanity) and in part because there is another, truer way, to estimate fossil subsidies. This time it’s the IMF that has run the numbers, and despite criticism, stuck to its insistence that hidden damage costs must be counted as subsidies, and in 2020 calculated the real fossil subsidy was about $5.9 trillion, almost 7% of global GDP. Which comes to about $11 million a minute.

COVID Recovery spending. According to the International Energy Agency, pandemic recovery spending, as of October of 2021, had reached $16.9 trillion. Of that, about $2.3 trillion went into long-term investments, of which only about $470 billion was for clean energy and sustainable recovery – about 3% of the total. Much of this was a one-time outlay that will not be repeated, so it’s notable that fossil energy subsidies significantly outpaced clean energy subsidies. It’s also notable that the overall economic recovery was fantastically inequitable. According to the World Inequality Lab, the richest 1% of the global population have, since the beginning of the pandemic, captured 19 times more of global wealth growth than the whole of the bottom 50%. The extremity here is frankly amazing – Oxfam, in its Inequality Kills report, notes that “The increase in Bezos’ fortune alone during the pandemic could pay for everyone on earth to be safely vaccinated”.

Military spending. Military spending is the gold standard of wasted economic potential, so it’s notable that, in early 2021, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated the world military spending had risen to almost $2 trillion in 2020. And this figure is growing fast. The US military budget is the largest in the world (it recently came to about 40% of the global total) and“ according to a projection by the Congressional Budget Office, Congress is projected to spend about $8.5 trillion for the military over the next decade – about half a trillion more than is budgeted for all nonmilitary discretionary programs combined (a category that includes federal spending on education, public health, scientific research, infrastructure, national parks and forests, environmental protection, law enforcement, courts, tax collection, foreign aid, homeland security and health care for veterans)”. But rapid growth is also taking place in China, where the military budget is about $229 billion and “modernization” programs are driving its growth up by an estimated 7.1 percent per year, and of course in Europe, where the Ukraine war has led a new prioritization for all things military.

Odious Debt. The poor are in all ways disadvantaged, and this of course means adequate climate action is often beyond their grasp, as is sustainable development itself. For some key current details, see the 2022 Financing for Sustainable Development Report, which begins not with the COVID pandemic but with the “legacy of inequality” that already hung over the poor countries when it arrived, a legacy that only deepened as the COVID crisis cascaded into broader economic instability (supply chains, inflation, higher interest rates) and then into the instabilities and economic dislocations of the Ukraine war. The chief point here, to be undiplomatic, is the billions in debt interest that the developing countries must every year pay to their creditors in the wealthy world, a burden that is sometimes so odious that the term “debt slavery”  seems more a simple honest description than any kind of hyperbole.

How large is the developing world’s external debt? Estimates vary, as does the legitimacy of the debt – how valid was it, really, to transfer South Africa’s apartheid debt to its inheritors, most of whom never had any part in negotiating it, or benefiting from it?  What is clear is that the total external debt of the developing countries readied $10.6 trillion in the wake of the pandemic, and that the servicing of this debt consumes resources that are now desperately needed for both development and the climate transition. In the low-income countries alone, external debt sharply increased during that pandemic, reaching $860 billion in 2020. No wonder a new wave of defaults has begin, and that widespread debt distress appears to be on the horizon.

Dynastic wealth. This brief list would not be complete without a mention of dynastic wealth, which is passed down from generation to generation within families, and of course within castes and classes. The numbers vary tremendously from country to country, but the US figures alone are boggling enough. Wealth managers estimate that “nearly 45 million U.S. households will transfer a total of $68.4 trillion in wealth to heirs and charity over the course of the next 25 years”. And of course, much of these transfers will be protected from taxation – according to one keystone study, “these wealthy families will avoid as much as $8.4 trillion in estate and generation-skipping taxes between now and 2024, by using dynasty trusts and other currently legal loopholes”.

Tax Avoidance. Speaking of the rich, we should mention hidden wealth, which is shielded by tax havens and secrecy laws, and has now been estimated to be about 8% of the world’s household financial wealth, or 10% of GWP . In 2007, this came to about $5.7 trillion. More generally, and this is probably the best bottom-line figure for this brief summary, taxing the world’s richest could raise about $2.52 trillion a year. It’s not enough to support all the ongoing social services associated with a just and sustainable global society, but it would definitely help. It would certainly cover the core of the climate transition. And if we may add a country specific data point, note that the wealth of the US billionaire class increased by an estimated $1.7 trillion since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, and that, under current laws, almost none of this new wealth will ever be taxed.

Blood Fossils. Finally, given Russia’s war on Ukraine, it seems appropriate to note that a good fraction of the untold billions that are spent on fossil fuels are diverted, sometimes immediately, to support the worst kinds of infamy. The exact figure varies with the price of gas and oil, but as of this writing, good estimates held that “Europe’s ongoing energy purchases send as much as $850 million each day into Russia’s coffers” (estimates vary, but see the citation to the Bruegal think tank’s numbers here). This, of course, is clear evidence of an intolerable dependence, and voices everywhere have risen to denounce it. What is not clear is how many of them will denounce the larger dependence, which hems us in on every side, with anything like equal vigour. Russian oil and gas, after all, is only the tip of the fossil iceberg.