Climate Change, Imperialism, and Democracy

Questions and Answers with Liz Stanton

Part of the ongoing Dollars & Sense special series on the “Costs of Empire,” this Q&A with Liz Stanton (forthcoming July/August 2017) addresses the ways that global climate change—and the unequal distribution of benefits and costs from greenhouse gas emissions—are related to global inequalities in wealth and power. Stanton is a climate economist and the founder and director of the Applied Economics Clinic, a non-profit energy and environment consulting group affiliated with the Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE), Tufts University. She answered our questions via email. —Eds.

Dollars & Sense: Some of the discussion of global climate change has been framed as “we’re all in the same boat and have to share in the effort to keep it afloat.” However, the distribution of benefits and costs from climate change is quite unequal, isn’t it?

Liz Stanton: Both things are true. We’re all in the same boat, but some are on the first class deck and some are in steerage. If the ship sinks, everyone is in big trouble. We only have, as they say, one Earth.

Short of a total climate disaster, however, we have the incremental degradation of natural environments and the well-being of the communities that rely on them the most. Richer families can protect themselves with houses outside of flood zones, air conditioning, and access to high-cost foods and private water supplies. Poorer families are far more vulnerable to severe weather, losses of natural resources, and limitations on the supply of food and water.
It’s helpful, as a rallying cry, to emphasize that everyone is affected by climate change—but some are more affected than others. The “same boat” analogy also misses the impacts on future generations, who lack a voice in today’s decision making.

D&S: The analogy of first class and steerage recalls, of course, the Titanic disaster—itself later used as a metaphor for the capitalist system in Europe and America and its crisis in the early-to-mid 20th century (war among the imperialist powers, economic depression, fascism, etc.). How should we understand the first class vs. steerage divisions today, both in terms of classes within countries and divisions between “core” and “periphery” countries?

LS: As is the case with so many other things, those of us living with comfortable incomes and access to abundant public services (a subset of those living in “high-income” countries) need to check our privilege when it comes to climate change.

The announcement of the intended withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Agreement, along with subsequent anti-science statements by elected officials, are a slap in the face to vulnerable communities around the world. The current fashion in Washington, D.C. of pretending to both disbelieve well-understood scientific facts and care nothing for the United States’ role in a global community is short-sighted and transparently greedy.

And the linkage between imperialism and vulnerability to climate impacts is undeniable. Historical and current-day imperialism create and continue to foster a system of disadvantage and poverty worldwide. The United States and other “rich” countries have an enormous debt to pay in restoring wealth of all kinds to their former (both official and unofficial) colonies. Among these debts is the ever-increasing cumulative level of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, today poised to become a barrier to the industrial development of poorer nations.

D&S: How should we account for responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions (e.g., consumption vs. production, current vs. cumulative, etc.)?

LS: All of the above. We need to examine our responsibility on the basis of all of these measures, because they each have their own truth. Our consumption causes emissions. But that doesn’t leave us blameless for the choices we make in what to produce and how to produce it. Cumulative emissions determine temperature increases and other climate impacts and are critical to a fair global distribution of climate rights and climate responsibilities. But current emissions are what we can still control and have to be the focus of mitigation investments.

D&S: How does the method of accounting for responsibility for emissions affect the way we see responsibility for emissions reductions? In part that’s about how the numbers shake out, but it also raises deeper questions—like whether we should see “emerging” economies like China and India as overtaking high-income countries as the big climate “villains,” or whether we should blame the U.S. failure to take serious climate action on the attachment to energy-hungry consumer lifestyles?

LS: Emissions accounting methods clearly (and I would say deliberately) set the narrative for responsibility for climate change and emission reductions. The emissions accounting driving international agreements is based on the annual flow of production-based emissions—a measure that forgives and forgets the past, only looking at today and tomorrow. True responsibility for climate change rests in (1) cumulative emissions for the past and present; and (2) consumption-based emissions going forward.

A final twist on climate accounting, per capita emissions, absolves China and India entirely for their past responsibility and puts their future responsibility into perspective. By this measure, the emissions of the “emerging economies” still lag far behind those of the United States. To keep global temperature change below two degrees Celsius, however, every country in the world will need per capita emissions that only exist today in the least developed nations, and are far lower than even those of China and India today.

D&S: Is it possible to control greenhouse gas emissions in a way that squares climate stabilization with economic/human development in low-income countries and maintaining well-being in higher-income countries?

LS: It is no exaggeration to say that will be the greatest work of this and future generations, and our efforts, creativity, initiative, and willingness to change will be judged by our descendants for centuries to come. Today’s extreme and immoral global disparity in well-being has imperialism and myopic exploitation of natural resources and human communities as its root cause. How can we right that wrong?

What we think of as well-being in higher-income countries will have to change—not necessarily to something worse but certainly to something different.

D&S: Is it even possible to have a low-carbon system of production and still have something resembling the material standards of living of the high-income countries today? To the extent that, in higher-income countries, we refocus our economic goals away from growing GDP and rising standards of living (in the sense of more ““stuff””), what do you see as the key ways we should redefine the quality of life?

LS: Not only do I not know, but I don’t think anyone does. A focus on associating affluence with the consumption of services rather than goods is a start. The same could be said for durable goods over disposables. A key factor in the scale of household energy use is the size of the home, which is on the rise in the United States. A recharacterization of what it means to have an affluent home that embraces smaller living spaces (and lower energy use) would be a move in the right direction.

More generally I think it’s not just about redefining the quality of life. It’s about redefining what it means to be affluent. Affluence is some combination of being comfortably well off and doing better than your neighbor, and the trappings of affluence—the way we demonstrate it to others—are a deeply embedded part of our culture. To move a whole society towards lower energy use and emissions we need to instill new ways in which affluence is demonstrated and—even more difficult—combat the relational quality of affluence that drives us to “one up” everyone else.

D&S: What kinds of changes (e.g., in terms of the distribution of power within and between countries) are necessary to get to a sustainable way of life?

LS: I think we’ll need a next wave of democratization to get there, in the United States and around the world. What we have meant by a “democracy” has shifted over time, usually in the direction of more inclusion and more equity. In the United States our democracy needs some work to catch up with a modern, liberal understanding of inclusion and equity. At a minimum this means addressing: obstacles to voting both explicit (prisoners, ex-convicts, children) and implicit (voter repression and voting access); election policies built on the expectation of a two-party system (introducing third-party and parliamentary systems, run-off voting); and anti-democratic institutions that give less weight to votes in urban areas in which the majority of people of color live (the electoral college, the U.S. Senate).

D&S: Does this push for democratization need to extend outside the political sphere, and to the economic sphere? Does it need to extend past the boundaries of individual nation-states, to a creation of democratic global institutions to deal with global problems?

LS: We need truly democratic governance to enact inclusive and equitable economics policies. But at the same time greater economic equality leads to a more enfranchised populace that can more successfully push for truly democratic governance. Today, in the United States we are deviating from that arc of the moral universe that broadens democracy and inclusion with every generation. It’s a disheartening backlash. For those in need of a boost to their will to fight on I recommend considering the likely demographics of the U.S. voting population 10, 20, and 30 years from now.

We have international institutions that are (with a few big exceptions) organized along the principles of representative democracy. Regrettably, the United States’ actions both overt and more subtle to undermine these institutions did not begin with the current administration. A United Nations backed wholeheartedly by the United States would be a very different institution.

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One Response to “Climate Change, Imperialism, and Democracy”

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