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Why you should care about inequality, even if you don’t!

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Gail Bradbrook, Co-Founder of Extinction Rebellion, joins her colleague Felix Barbour, to further address this challenge from an angry banker, who responded to her earlier blogs on this site. Maybe like HSBC’s Stuart Kirk, our angry banker is merely voicing what many of us silently think? The question then is, is he right? (Stuart Kirk was way off!). Meanwhile a whistleblowing blog on ESG has elicited this response suggesting that the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals are a way forwards - is this the case?…

Dear Angry Banker,

You finished your letter to Chris with this paragraph:

Finally, Ms. Bradbrook goes for the heart strings of how can we look after a legacy for our children and grandchildren. This is laudable and is why I have ensured that our property, art and other investments in assets will leave them with plenty of funding to do whatever they have to do to have a better life. What more do you need?

A leading climate impact scientist has suggested that half the world might die as climate change unfolds. Maybe you think that your children will be OK, while others perish? Are many of us simply hoping that our children won’t be the ones affected?

The wider issue is the risk of civilisational collapse. The government’s own climate change committee issued a warning that we should prepare for a 4 degree warmer world, despite having said in 2008 that it is “potentially beyond our ability to adapt.” In fact there is, according to Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre, a widespread view that 4 degrees is: “incompatible with an organised global community”.

Complacent hope that our children will be OK in the light of this, is not based on a realistic assessment of our predicament, it’s more an indicator of our psychological inability to face and respond to reality.

So is it time to double down and build bunkers? There is a booming trade in them apparently. The despair underneath this reaction has not been lost to commentators. And there’s money available to build them: in 2022, the UK's 177 billionaires were worth £710 billion, adding 8% to their fortunes, as ordinary people struggle to make ends meet. We live in a system that encourages and rewards selfish behaviour, even though there is mounting evidence for the essential good nature of human beings. It seems we respond to our circumstances and our better natures can be weaponised against us.

What if we were to feel as if the children of the world were all of our children? As if we cared about the children of all life, for the next seven generations? With the intention that no one would be left behind? When we are in a relaxed low-stress state, our bodies are more attuned to empathy and compassion. But it turns out highly unequal societies make us more stressed and less empathetic. As Wilson and Pickett evidence in their influential book The Spirit Level - more equal societies are better for everyone. Although it turns out more privileged people believe policies to increase equality will negatively impact them when they won’t.

My research colleague Felix Barbour and I wanted to understand more about inequality. Why should we all see this as an urgent, contributing issue to tackle as part of the climate and ecological crisis; and of course what can be done?

How is the climate and ecological crisis intertwined with inequality?

First of all there is the colossal inequality in responsibility for the crisis. Globally, the richest 1% were together responsible for twice the emissions of the poorest 50% between 1990 and 2015. On average, the carbon footprint of someone in the richest 1% is 80 times that of someone from the poorest half of humanity. Carbon inequality is large within countries too; for example, in the UK the wealthiest 1% of Brits on average have a carbon footprint over 11 times that of someone from the poorest half of the country. If we attribute the responsibility for emissions to the owners of polluting capital then carbon inequality is likely to be much higher.

The inequality in responsibility is mirrored in the unequal vulnerability to the impacts of global heating. Countries in the Global South and people from more disadvantaged communities are already bearing the brunt of the climate crisis. Throughout its latest report, the IPCC stresses over and over again that a person’s vulnerability to the climate crisis “is exacerbated by inequity and marginalisation linked to gender, ethnicity, low income or combinations thereof [...] especially for many Indigenous Peoples”. For example, the UN estimates that women make up 80% of people displaced by global heating, and in areas of Louisiana the death rate from Hurricane Katrina was up to four times higher for black people than people racialised as white.

If a person cares about the climate crisis why should they care about inequality?

Let’s start with some behavioural stuff. Inequality increases the pressure to consume, with several studies finding that conspicuous consumption is more intense in countries with greater income inequality. On top of this, the mega-polluting lifestyles of the wealthiest tend to set unsustainable consumption norms that others strive to emulate. Think of SUVs, for example: climate-wrecking status symbols whose growing popularity is the second largest contributor to global emissions growth. The Tyre Extinguishers are onto something here…

Then we’ve got the concentration of power that comes with high wealth inequality. Recent revelations that the current wave of net-zero backlash is funded by fossil fuel interests are just the latest examples of wealth mobilised in opposition to climate action.

When inequality is expressed as differential abilities to move around, societies can become “locked in” to unsustainable behaviours, such as car-dependence. This is particularly well-documented in the US where increasing car ownership amongst rich white people enabled them to flee the racialised inner cities. The urban sprawl stemming from this intersection of racial and economic inequality has led inhabitants of many US to be locked-in to car dependency. The climate costs of this sprawl is illustrated by estimates finding that an inhabitant in Atlanta emits eleven times as much from travel as someone living in Barcelona, despite their comparable wealth.

Environmental racism makes ecological destruction possible. As one author puts it, “You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can't have disposable people without racism.” In the UK, waste incinerators are three times more likely to be situated in the most deprived and ethnically-diverse areas.

Environmental racism makes it possible to dump the impacts of ecological devastation on others globally too. From the complicity of Shell’s European bosses in the the torture and murder of Nigerian activists, to the militarised assault of Indigenous peoples at Standing Rock, to the UK dumping its plastic waste on Vietnam.

A system that drives inequality also forces greater production. Back in the 1930s the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would enable people in rich countries to be working a 15-hour week by now. But as David Graeber points out, “technology has been marshalled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more”. Rather than efficiency gains translating into producing the same amount with more time off, the enhanced productivity is just an opportunity to produce more. The power imbalance between employers and employees ensures that enjoying these efficiency gains as more leisure with the same pay is never on the table. Instead, a work-and-spend cycle traps us in ever-escalating levels of consumption.

The resulting “chronic shortage of time” produces a need for faster, less sustainable ways of living. Driving rather than cycling; flying rather than taking the train; buying vegetables from another continent rather than growing your own. And, of course, commuting to work and back five days a week.

Technology is not solving our problems because – among other reasons – the profits of automation are concentrated in the hands of a few. As a result the only way to avoid mass unemployment is by growing the economy, with the increased extraction and carbon emissions incurred by increasing production and consumption. This coupling between GDP and carbon still holds even if growth is in the service sector.

A final stop on this brief (but by no means exhaustive) tour of inequality and the climate crisis relates to international debt. Indebted nations such as Argentina are strangled by high-interest repayments on conditional loans from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and other international lenders. This debt has consequences for the climate. Debt repayments suffocate nations’ ability to take climate action – in 2021, 34 of the world’s poorest countries spent over five times more on debt payments than on protecting their people from climate impacts.

To make matters worse, the pressure to scrape together foreign currency forces countries to deforest and turbo-charge fossil fuel extraction. Despite fierce opposition from local and Indigenous communities, the IMF is counting on Argentina to expand fracking in Vaca Muerta – the world’s second largest non-conventional gas basin – to help generate the cash required to repay its debts. And the IMF even put forward coal and gas extraction as a solution to debt incurred by Mozambique due to climate disasters!

Ok, I’m convinced. But what can actually be done?

Face reality: there is a systemic underpinning of the many crises we are in

Recently in this blog, Jeff Scott, Chairman and Co-Founder of Rewired Earth suggests the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs) as ways to measure progress. However a recent letter to the UN of 100 academics from 17 countries states: “failure to meet the SDGs is an indication of a systemic problem. If the way modern societies operate cause [sic] the problems that the SDGs seek to address, can we be surprised that those same systems are incapable of fixing them? It is becoming clear that the assumptions that underpin the SDGs are invalid, including continual economic expansion”. 

The problems baked into our economic system have been described further here in an earlier blog and there is a more recent, thorough list from Miki Kashtan.

Internationally

Internationally, the cancellation of all Global South debt is a good place to start, liberating countries of the South from the pressure to extract fossil fuels and freeing up money, resources, and labour to support a transition to renewable energy. A move like this is well within the power of rich countries, who control the majority vote in the World Bank and IMF. Over the longer term, we’d need to see a broader rebalancing of power relations within international governance. This alongside a wider framing of what it means to stop harms and repair damage that has already been done.

Tax dodging amounts to the loss of $483 billion of government revenue every year – further entrenching national and international inequalities. The UK’s web of Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies is responsible for a third of corporate tax losses across the globe. As a result, any moves by the UK to improve financial transparency would have substantial positive impacts on inequalities and the revenues available to fund a green transition.

Countries

Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez cite the large changes in inequality across time and borders as evidence “that economic trends are not acts of God, and that country-specific institutions and historical circumstances can lead to very different inequality outcomes.” Taxation is a straightforward approach to reducing inequalities within countries whilst providing the resources for a decent standard of living in an ecologically-efficient way.

Companies / Organisations

Recent modelling studies support the idea that combining reductions in total working hours with job sharing could simultaneously reduce ecological pressure and inequalities. This is something that individual companies and organisations can instigate, along with measures to limit pay differentials and develop cooperative workspaces with greater power for workers in the decision making.

Individuals

Like it or not, if you have a high social or economic status then your decisions have considerable influence over the impacts of inequality and the progression of global heating. Are you a frequent flyer? Do you hold investments in fossil fuels? Are you prioritising a habitable planet when making decisions in the workplace? How is your pension invested?

Inequality affects us all, some more obviously than others. Nature is based largely on cooperation and abundance, within limits. As the polycrises unfold and we will have to face the consequences of unfettered greed, it's time to give up the mentality of scarcity and competition and find our togetherness and compassion.

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Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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