The Future of Work

Consider the Changing Climate

Juliet Schor

Juliet Schor is a professor of sociology at Boston College. She known worldwide for her research on the interrelated issues of work, leisure, and consumption. Her books on these themes include The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, The Overspent American: Upscaling, Downshifting, and the New Consumer, and Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth (retitled True Wealth for its paperback edition).

Over the last year or two I’ve noticed that conversations about the future of work are now mostly about machines—how smart ones will do fantastic things to make our lives better, or how they’ll make human labor redundant and create a jobless dystopia. My training in economics has led me to be skeptical of both sides in this debate. After all, during the Industrial Revolution extraordinary labor-saving technological change had both good (cheaper products) and bad (pollution) effects. It also resulted in a tremendous increase in hours of work. The lesson from this historical episode, and plenty of others, is that technology doesn’t determine incomes, distribution, employment, or quality of life. It’s one factor in a much larger context.

Today, that context must include consideration of climate change, which has been almost totally missing from discussions about the future of work. The most obvious reason climate change matters is that it promises to be extremely disruptive. Even if the global community can pull off the equivalent of a Hail Mary pass and limit warming to two degrees Celsius, plenty of climate chaos is still in store. At this point, a future of four degrees of warming is more likely, given current national pledges for emissions reductions and considerable uncertainty about them.

This implies catastrophic sea level rise, drought, plummeting agricultural yields, frequent extreme weather, and human migrations on a large scale. These will lead to some predictable changes in the world of work: more need for first responders, health professionals, civil engineers, and aid workers, among other occupations. Climate chaos will also have large macroeconomic effects, reducing investment, consumption, and employment. A just-published study in Nature found that more than a fifth of GDP will be lost by the end of this century, much more than previous models have predicted. Another increasingly likely scenario is the bursting of the carbon bubble, once reserves already priced into fossil fuel company valuations are recognized to be unburnable and these companies’ assets collapse. Climate mayhem leads to economic mayhem. The operative word for the future of work would be shrinkage.

But this apocalyptic future is not our only option. Acting forcefully on emissions today could dramatically increase the likelihood of not only containing warming, but also making work more sustainable, satisfying, and productive. To see how, we need to consider the connection between working hours and carbon emissions, a key link that has been absent from all climate models and the climate change conversation.

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U.S. Matters

Sunita Narain

This blog post, from regular Triple Crisis contributor Sunita Narain, expands on the arguments put forth in her earlier letter (with co-author Chandra Bhushan) about their recent report on U.S. government policy on climate change: “Captain America: U.S. Climate Goals—A Reckoning.” Narain raises tough criticisms here not only of the inadequate steps that the U.S. government has taken on climate mitigation, but also the complacency of U.S. civil society in counseling the world to wait for the United States to get its act together. As she points out, the world cannot afford to wait, for every day of delay further shifts the burdens of climate mitigation from the U.S. to other shoulders. —Eds.

Why should we look at the U.S. to check out its climate action plan? The fact is that the U.S. is the world’s largest historical contributor to greenhouse gas emissions—the stock that is already in the atmosphere and already warming the earth’s surface—and the second largest contributor (after China) to annual emissions. What the U.S. does makes a huge difference to the world’s fight against runaway climate change. It will also force others to act. It is, after all, the leader. And now, after nearly three decades of climate change denial, the U.S. has decided enough is enough. President Barack Obama has said clearly that climate change is real, and his country must act. It has submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC)—its emissions reduction framework—to the climate treaty secretariat. The world is already celebrating—the prodigal has returned.

My colleague Chandra Bhushan and I humbly disagree. Our research, which we present in our just released report, Capitan America, presents a few inconvenient truths that might throw cold water on the celebration. The U.S. climate action plan is neither ambitious nor equitable. Worse, it is but business-as-usual. When implemented emissions reduction will be marginal. Whatever reduction is achieved, whether due to increased efficiency or a shift in fossil fuel use, will be negated by runaway gluttonous consumption. We conclude, for the sake of the world’s future: American lifestyle can no longer remain non-negotiable.

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U.S. Climate Goals: A Reckoning

The editors of Triple Crisis blog received the following letter from regular contributor Sunita Narain and her co-author Chandra Bhushan about their recent report on U.S. government policy on climate change. “Captain America: U.S. Climate Goals—A Reckoning.” They raise tough criticisms of the weak and halting steps that the U.S. government has taken, and express apt concern about whether U.S. ways of production and consumption can long persist—let along be replicated around the world—without causing irreversible and catastrophic harm. Make sure to check out the links, to a summary of key findings and to the full report. —Eds.

We are sending you a link to our just released report, Capitan America in which we take a close and careful look at the U.S. government’s action plan on climate change.

There is also a link to our presentation on our key findings.

We write this report knowing that the threat of climate change is real and urgent. We know this because we in South Asia are already seeing horrific impacts of changing weather, hitting the most poorest and most vulnerable. We strongly believe the world needs an effective and ambitious climate change deal. In this context we ask if the U.S. climate action plan is ambitious, equitable or sufficient? We ask this because it is said that even if U.S. Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) is not ambitious, it signals a change in the country’s position. And that it will build momentum in the future. The question is if the U.S. is on track to make real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions?

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China’s Clean Energy Plans—Enough to Stave Off Climate Change?

Sara Hsu

I have written previously on China’s environmental status and the creation of “green” jobs, noting that more must be done to win Premier Li Keqiang’s “war on pollution.” More news has come out, including the statement that China is set to spend $2.5 trillion in the coming 15 years on clean energy, according to Rae Kwon Chung, principal advisor on climate change for the UN Secretary-General. The statement was made at the China Summit on Caring for Climate, a UN Global Compact Network event. China intends to cut carbon dioxide emissions and increase the supply of renewable energy, in an attempt to reach its goal of obtaining 20% of its power from renewables and nuclear power by 2030. Will this be enough to stave off climate change?

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Promise Me the Monsoon

Sunita Narain

Why this weird weather? Why have western disturbances—the extra-tropical storms that originate in the Mediterranean and Atlantic seas—been lashing us again and again, with devastating impacts on agriculture? Is this normal? Or has weird weather become the new definition of normal?

The India Meteorological Department says the severe and unseasonal rain this year has been because of the confluence of western disturbances with the easterlies from the Bay of Bengal which is normal. But what they cannot explain is why the frequency of the western disturbances has increased and why the impact of this confluence is being felt all the way up to central India which is unusual and definitely not normal.

Indian scientists are extremely cautious about using the CC—climate change—word. But it is now widely recognised that warming is making the world’s weather more unstable and extreme. How much is the question. Scientists would agree on saying that although no single extreme weather event could be attributed to climate change, the increased frequency and intensity of such events is definitely because of human-made climate change. Now, this science is becoming more exact. A recent paper published in Nature Climate Change finds that the observed average global warming of 0.85°C is responsible for 75 per cent of the daily heat extremes and 18 per cent of the precipitation extremes. More worrying is the conclusion that as the temperature increases to 2°C—which is likely, given the lack of global effort in cutting greenhouse gas emissions—40 per cent of the rainfall extremes will be linked to human-made climate change.

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Avaaz’s Climate Vanity

Upward gazing can be politically blinding

Patrick Bond

Who’s not heard the great African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral’s injunction, fifty years ago, “Tell no lies and claim no easy victories”? If, like me, you’re a petit bourgeois who is hopeful for social progress, then let’s be frank: this advice hits at our greatest weakness, the temptation of back-slapping vanity.

The leading framers for the 41-million strong clicktivist team from Avaaz need to remember Cabral. They over-reached ridiculously last week in praising the G7:

Bond Avaaz

Many told us it was a pipe dream, but the G7 Summit of leading world powers just committed to getting the global economy off fossil fuels forever!!! Even the normally cynical media is raving that this is a huge deal. And it’s one giant step closer to a huge win at the Paris summit in December – where the entire world could unite behind the same goal of a world without fossil fuels – the only way to save us all from catastrophic climate change… Our work is far from done, but it’s a day to celebrate – click here to read more and say congratulations to everyone else in this incredibly wonderful community!!

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On the Rocky Road to Paris

Martin Khor

One of the biggest global events this year is the United Nations Climate Conference in Paris in December.

A new agreement to tackle climate change is expected, but there are many hurdles to overcome first.

Negotiations for the Paris agreement are now taking place in Bonn. Old unresolved issues have re-surfaced, with sharp divisions between developed countries (the North) and developing countries (the South).

It’s hard to see how they can be settled in the remaining three meetings, including the Paris conference.” But a deal in Paris is a political necessity, so somehow the differences have to be bridged, or else papered over.

There are two requisites for a good climate deal. It has to be environmentally ambitious, meaning that it leads the world to reduce emissions so that the average global temperature does not increase by more than 2°C (or 1.5°C, according to some) above the pre-industrial period.

That present temperature has now exceeded by 0.8°C. With global emissions increasing by about 50 billion tonnes a year, the remaining “space” in the atmosphere to absorb more emissions (before the 2°C limit is reached) will be exhausted in three decades or so.

The deal also has to be fair and equitable. The North, having been mainly responsible for the historical emissions and being more economically advanced, has to take the lead in cutting emissions as well as transferring funds and technology to the South to help it switch to low-carbon sustainable development pathways.

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Maine Farmers and Climate Change, Part II

System Change

Stephanie Welcomer, Mark Haggerty, and John Jemison, Guest Bloggers

This is part II of a two-part series, excerpted from an article originally published in the March/April issue of Dollars & Sense. The full article is available here.

Systems theorists, who study how organizations and systems change, offer some insight into farmers’ minimal recognition of climate change, and their lack of advocacy for climate-mitigation policy. Management scholar Connie Gersick describes systems—such as the farming sector—as being in equilibrium until fundamental factors change.

One key factor can be “environmental changes that threaten the system’s ability to obtain resources.” As the system’s actors are faced with persistent, systemic problems, they experience mounting discomfort. Once key actors recognize that the system has become dysfunctional, they begin to search for new information about the sources of the problems and possible new steps. Newcomers enter the system and are enlisted or inspired to search for solutions. The entrenched understandings, relationships, and power dynamics of the system, finally, can be dismantled. Revolutionary change can happen and a new system can be created.

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Maine Farmers and Climate Change, Part I

How Do Farmers See It?

Stephanie Welcomer, Mark Haggerty, and John Jemison, Guest Bloggers

This is part I of a two-part series, excerpted from an article originally published in the March/April issue of Dollars & Sense. The full article is available here.

Maine’s farmers are facing unprecedented challenges stemming from climate change, centered on the two key ingredients in agriculture—water and soil. Too much water can wash soil away, while too little limits crop production and dries the soil out. According to the University of Maine report Maine’s Climate Future, the “high-intensity rainfall events” that are expected to accompany climate change are “less effective at replenishing soil water supplies and more likely to erode soil.” Meanwhile, higher average temperatures mean that, for a given level of precipitation, less water will actually be available to crops, due to higher rates of moisture loss from the ground and from the plants themselves.

As part of the 2011 “Assessing Maine’s Agriculture Future” study, we interviewed around 200 Maine farmers about changes in the climate and their expectations for the future of farming. We asked representatives and opinion leaders from a wide sampling of the state’s farming sectors about their reasons for farming, their concerns, and their hopes for the future, as well as changes in weather patterns and their related adaptations.

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Will BRICS Carbon Traders Bail Out the Bankers’ Climate Strategy? Part I

This is part I of a two-part series.

Patrick Bond

The hope for our collective survival in the face of a likely climate catastrophe has been vested in a combination of multilateral emissions rearrangements and national regulation. But the premise behind the core strategy—the 1997 Kyoto Protocol—must be debated. Assuming a degree of state subsidization and increasingly stringent caps on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, Kyoto posited that market-centric strategies such as emissions trading schemes and offsets can allocate costs and benefits appropriately so as to shift the burden of mitigation and carbon sequestration most efficiently. Current advocates of emissions trading still insist that this strategy will be effective once the largest new emitters in the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) bloc are integrated in world carbon markets.

As climate crisis looms ever larger on the horizon, the demise of the Kyoto Protocol’s binding emissions-cuts commitments on wealthier countries will in the near future compel from them a renewed effort to promote market-incentivized reductions. In spite of widely-acknowledged market failure in the emissions trade, especially in Europe, several “emerging markets,” especially the BRICS, have begun the process of setting up or expanding their carbon trading and offset strategies now that (since 2012) they no longer qualify for Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) credits. The Kyoto Protocol had made provision for low-income countries to receive CDM funds for emissions reductions in specific projects, but the system was subject to repeated abuse.

Yet attempts to resurrect market strategies will become more visible as the next global-scale climate treaty takes shape in December 2015 at the Paris summit of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Most notably, that 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) is anticipated to remove the critical “Common but Differentiated Responsibility” clause that traditionally separated national units of analysis by per capita wealth.

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