Poverty and climate change

I saw this article a while ago and wanted to report on it, but got side tracked with other things.

It makes it clear that the wealthiest nations and the wealthiest people are overwhelmingly responsible for climate change, but that the costs will be borne overwhelmingly by the poorest people in developing nations.  As one researcher finds, “the world’s rich countries owe the world’s poor $2.3 trillion — an amount that easily eclipses the total of Third World debt ($1.8 trillion)”.  At a personal level, one study the article refers to “showed that people in the U.S. who earned more than $75,000 emitted nearly four times as much C02 as those who earned less than $10,000”.

In fact, Stephen Pacala, the director of the Princeton Environmental Institute, said “the world’s 500 million richest people were responsible for a breathtaking 50 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions”.

It is incumbent on most of us, who have the benefit of enjoying life in one of the most privileged nations on earth, to consider the moral implications of our actions – how much stuff we consume, where we travel, how we travel, what we throw out, what we leave on unused, the necessity of doing many of the things we do, how we invest, what value we place on energy efficiency, and so on.  Would a Hawaiian vacation have the same appeal to us if we knew that it would contribute to the death by drowning of a seamstress in Bangladesh or a the death by starvation of a subsistence farmer in drought-stricken Africa?  We would not willingly push the seamstress into the water if this was a requirement of our Hawaiian vacation, but somehow, because of the physical and emotional distance, we can ignore the causal connection between the two events.  But our responsibility is the same.

I don’t want to preach here, I’m often just as guilty as anyone else reading this.  And I’m wary of an easy conclusion that the article can lead to – that wealth is inherently evil.  I don’t like this implication partly because it’s demoralizing.  No one wants to believe that they have to live in mud huts in order to be good people.  I also don’t like this implication because it discounts the vast amount of good that wealth can do.  Keep in mind that a wealthy businessman who cuts his flights from an average of 50 a year to an average of 10 has probably done much more for global warming than any of us ever could.  If he uses the money saved to help finance building retrofits even at personal profit, he is multiplying the good he does.  The connection between wealth and emissions is strong but descriptive, not prescriptive.  Wealth does not require us to belch carbon dioxide.

Still, articles like this bring out my own sense of my responsibility with such clarity that I feel a moral duty to do better.  Or at least to pause and think what more I can do.

I believe even the poorest Canadians can make a significant personal impact on their own global warming contribution, but it is undoubtedly challenging to make a difference when every penny of every paycheque is spoken for.  Most of us, though, have significant discretion in our spending.  And I believe, a moral duty to evaluate how we use it.

One response to “Poverty and climate change”

  1. Ron M writes:


    Whatever mechanisms we put in place to limit CO2 in the developed nations must consider that people will be emitting CO2 just going to work at the factory, cooking meals and bathing the children. Do we tax people scraping out a living who have no disposable $s as is? Are only elites to drive vehicles? Live in detached homes? Eat fruits and veggies in the winter months? A gas tax doesn’t discriminate between people who need to get to work vs. Gucci “greens” driving to a ski vacation in their Landrovers or flying off to a Beach resort because they have paid for forgiveness by paying for some indulgence (gas tax or whatever carbon offset).

    There is a whole class of people in our nation who are falling behind-the working poor. No health benefits. No indexed pensions waiting for them. No cost of living clauses in their contracts. Yes the Guccis are happy to support the tax carbon plans because the burden will fall on those who can least afford more taxes and increased costs while the Guccis just keep on consuming as much as ever. There will be less traffic on the roads and more parking spaces downtown for their Landrovers.

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