In Defense of Greta Thunberg
Why Extractivist Conspiracies Undermine Efforts to Fight Global Warming
For way too long, the politicians and the people in power have gotten away with not doing anything at all to fight the climate crisis and the ecological crisis. But we will make sure that they do not get away with it any longer.
—Greta Thunberg, addressing the Extinction Rebellion protest, London, April 21, 2019
Greta Thunberg possesses an unusual power. Not long after my niece and nephew joined Thunberg’s “School Strike for Climate” movement, they stopped eating meat. Now, seeking to avoid overly complex mealtimes, my sister and her husband have become accidental vegetarians. Visits from an earnest, climate-obsessed, vegetarian uncle have never gone better.
The school strike movement’s cultural influence has many layers. One advantage is that student activists can sidestep the practical questions of how climate change should be addressed. As they emerge, blinking, into the complexities of adult moral responsibility, it is enough that these young people describe the landscape as they see it: Climate action is an urgent priority; more should be done; those in charge have failed. Moreover, Thunberg’s school strike movement has chosen its friends and enemies wisely. Emotionally, Thunberg distinguishes “we, the ones making a difference” from the “people in power,” who are “not doing anything.” Analytically, she emphasizes the primacy of politics and the fact that necessary change is primarily institutional rather than personal. Thunberg certainly critiques the consumption of Western societies, but she finds fault primarily with its political class.
The adult climate movement is not always so astute. “We are stuck,” Naomi Klein writes, “because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe — and would benefit the vast majority — are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.” In Klein’s demonology, the villains are a tiny, profit-hungry, “extractivist” elite. The problem with these elites is not simply that they, with their private jets and luxury yachts, are directly responsible for outsized emissions. Extractivists also use their political power to prolong our dependence on fossil fuels.
Klein’s worldview is reinforced by reports peddling the news that a handful of companies are responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). Headlines that proclaim “Just 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions” imply that we can resolve climate change simply by tackling corporate power. We can exorcise these companies’ malignant influence, we are told, by divesting their shares, blockading their power plants, and picketing their mines — a strategy Klein calls “blockadia.” Once we have slipped the yoke of corporate malevolence, we will finally be free to construct an egalitarian society powered solely by the “abundant energies on our planet’s surface”. In this view, “extractivism” and “blockadia” become the rival forces — much like capital and labor — of the emerging climate politics. If the profits of extractivism flow to a small corporate elite while climate harms punish ordinary workers, then addressing climate change can seem to be a simple problem of political organization. And progressive activists know how to win at this game.
Klein contrasts her strategy of populist resentment with that of “moderates,” who seek to “reframe” climate debates so as to “reassure members of a panicked, megalomaniacal elite that they are still masters of the universe, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” Klein instructs her followers to instead resist the power and desires of those elites. “You make sure you have enough people on your side to change the balance of power and take on those responsible,” she writes, restricting her conception of “those responsible” to the select few corporate villains she indicts.
On this question of responsibility, though, Thunberg’s analysis hits much closer to the mark. Thunberg thinks that everyone in rich countries like Sweden is responsible for climate change. As she marvels, “Even most climate scientists or green politicians keep on flying around the world, eating meat and dairy.” The reason she calls on rich countries to eliminate all emissions within about six years is “so that people in poorer countries can have a chance to heighten their standard of living by building some of the infrastructure that we have already built, such as roads, schools, hospitals, clean drinking water, electricity, and so on.” I may not accept Thunberg’s belief that radical constraints on individual consumption offer a plausible or desirable climate solution, but I do share her aspiration for universal human development through public infrastructure and service delivery. And I think that her perspective on international inequalities, her estimates of scale, and her beliefs about whose consumption is responsible for the climate crisis are well grounded in the available facts.
I also happen to agree with Klein that greater equality and redistribution are prerequisites for a just and effective climate response. But I cannot accept that it is politically useful, or accurate, to claim that everyone — save a tiny extractivist elite — will benefit from the austerity that would be needed to avert dangerous warming without radical technological innovation. Nor can Klein explain the reality that Thunberg so readily acknowledges: the era of fossil fuels has brought benefits to ordinary people and CEOs alike. Reckoning with that fact, Thunberg suggests, is where any political response to climate change must begin.
As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report was being finalized in April 2014, some media reports alleged that it was being “censored.” Three graphs — the first depicting historical emissions by region, the second per-capita emissions, and the third emissions embodied in trade — had been deleted from the “Summary for Policymakers.” Although the claims of censorship were a beat-up, the story of the deleted graphs is revealing. Each IPCC report includes a separate “Summary for Policymakers,” the contents of which must be approved by state representatives. This process is designed precisely so that inconvenient truths can be airbrushed out of the politically sensitive summary document. In the 2014 report, indeed, the omitted graphs showed that, since the mid-1970s, CO2 emissions have skyrocketed outside the OECD countries as manufacturing industries have migrated south. These data torpedoed the G77’s narrative that addressing climate change is primarily a First World problem. They also undermined any sense that curtailing the rich world’s consumption would be sufficient to avoid climatic breakdown.
This rhetorical problem emerges in many ways from the strong — and, for climate activists, troublesome — correlation between carbon emissions and human development. Historically, carbon emissions first began to surge in places that were earliest to industrialize and exploit fossil fuels at scale: Europe and then North America. As countries like China and India whose historical emissions have been trivial have industrialized, their emissions have increased rapidly, to 29 and 7 percent of world emissions, respectively. The consequence is that roughly two-thirds of all emissions now originate outside the OECD. Yet, even today, the per-capita emissions (~11 tons CO2 equivalent [tCO2e]) of the 1.4 billion people living in rich countries (the 36 members of the OECD) are almost double the global average of approximately 6.2 tCO2e per year, and over five times higher than India’s per-capita emissions (more than 1.8 tCO2e in 2017). As communities in lower-income countries demand the benefits of access to modern energy —better paying jobs, refrigeration, electric cooking, washing machines, and computers — this shift in the geography of global emissions is likely to continue.
Within China and India, hundreds of millions of people already have emission levels and lifestyles that resemble those in the rich world. As a result, the comparison of average national emissions on display in IPCC report summaries underplays the depth of global inequality because it ignores both growing intranational inequality and international trade. As manufacturing industries producing goods for Western consumers have expanded in the Global South, the geographies of pollution and consumption have diverged. Given the scale of emissions embodied in international trade, and the disparities in wealth, energy use, and emissions among citizens of the same country, national comparisons of production-linked emissions offer an increasingly poor guide to carbon-linked inequality.
Having said that, international inequalities remain stark, and given the close correlation among development, wealth, energy use, and carbon emissions, social and economic inequality tends to shape emissions disparities. In 2015, Lucas Chancel and Thomas Piketty published an influential paper analyzing inequality in global consumption-linked GHG emissions. They found that, although the global distribution of GHG emissions is not quite as unequal as the distribution of income, inequalities are still extreme. For example, the world’s very richest people — the most affluent Americans, Singaporeans, and Saudis — have lifestyles that generate roughly 2,000 times the per-capita emissions of the world’s very poorest (~0.1tCO2e per year for the poor in Honduras, Rwanda, and Malawi). Globally, the activities of the top 10 percent of emitters (which includes most if the population in countries like the United States, Australia, and Sweden) account for 45 percent of all emissions.
These statistics certainly substantiate claims that an elite group is “most responsible” for climate change, but they also reveal that this elite group is quite large. Most of the First World climate activists who channel popular resentment upward toward a tiny extractivist elite are themselves members of what, by global standards, is a profligate elite minority. Consider me: I’m childless, near-vegan, live in a small, non–air-conditioned flat, and have never owned a car. I’m also part of the polluting 1 percent. Why? Because I travel by air a few times a year. If you want to know if you’re also part of the profligate 1 percent, you might begin by checking your passport.
Meanwhile, the poorest 50 percent of humanity are responsible for only 13 percent of global emissions. Many projections suggest that present-day patterns of inequality in wealth and energy access are likely to continue into the distant future. If these predictions are accurate, many lower-income communities will have little need for mitigation policy — poverty will ensure that their emissions remain trivial. Indeed, in the period Chancel and Piketty studied (1998–2013, “from Kyoto to Paris”), the only group whose emissions actually fell were the very poorest 4 percent.
A mitigation strategy built around the expectation that half of humanity will remain impoverished, however, is both unjust and likely to fail. Many climate advocates pretend that there is no tension between reducing emissions and human development. They rest their hopes on forms of future “development” that utilize only such “appropriate technologies” as solar power and permacultural farming. But with today’s technologies, reducing poverty necessarily means increasing emissions. If all goes well, the correlation between development, wealth, and emissions might weaken over time. Nevertheless, an enormous amount of social and technological innovation would be needed to sever this link.
In the meantime, as the very poorest fall further behind, emissions from the ascendant global middle class are on the rise. Chancel and Piketty illustrate the global distribution of emissions by identifying the kinds of people whose emissions are around 7 tCO2e per person per year — just slightly above the global average. In this category we find “groups as diverse as the top 1% of earners from Tanzania, the upper middle class (7th decile) in Mongolia and China” (that is, a couple of hundred million Chinese have higher emissions) “as well as poor French and Germans (respectively 2nd and 3rd income deciles).” This “middle 40 percent” of the global population are responsible for 42 percent of all GHG emissions and, reflecting their improving economic fortunes, their emissions are also growing the fastest. Is that economic development not precisely what we — and certainly they — should want?
If the rich could be persuaded to live more simply, Thunberg urges, perhaps that would create room for the majority world to consume more. But would it in fact be possible to converge on a level of consumption that would meet everyone’s needs while respecting ecological limits?
It depends on where you set the bar. Some quantitatively minded advocates of “degrowth” have recently sought to calculate the level of human development that is compatible with staying within planetary boundaries. Their findings are disappointing. Currently, there is no country that meets its citizens’ basic needs at a level of resource use consistent with avoiding dangerous climate change. And although it should be possible for 8 billion people to live slightly above the “extreme poverty” line while averting climate change, these researchers find that “more qualitative goals” such as “high life satisfaction, healthy life, secondary education, democratic quality, social support” cannot be universally met unless we find radically more efficient ways to translate resource use into social outcomes.
Back in 2011, the late Swedish statistician Hans Rosling gave a TED Talk titled “The Magic Washing Machine” that indirectly proposed another point at which we might want material consumption to converge: access to an electric washing machine. Rosling suggested that we categorize the world population into four income levels: “fire people” (those who lack any access to electricity and cook on open fires), “bulb people” (those with intermittent access to electricity), “washing machine people” (those with access to relatively high-power appliances like washing machines), and “air people” (those with the means to fly). In 2017, around one billion people lived at the “fire” level, in extreme poverty on less than $1 per day. Another three billion had incomes between $2 and $8 per day, bringing them to “bulb” status, while two billion more earned between $8 and $32 — the income level at which washing machine access is common. The richest group — the “air” class — comprised around a billion people who now earn over $64 per day. As Rosling pointed out, while the richest billion consume around half of all global energy, even the washing machine people consume more than an equal share. That is to say, if the whole world were to converge at a level of consumption where everyone could afford access to washing machines but no-one traveled by plane, global energy demand would actually increase.
Keep in mind that the global population is still growing. While most predictions anticipate a global population of 10 billion this century, improvements in gender equality and education could theoretically bend the population curve back toward seven billion. Nevertheless, since most current population growth results from people living longer, and since average world fertility remains slightly above the “replacement rate,” barring disasters, growth has further to run. If you share my hope for an egalitarian world in which everyone reaches at least a “washing machine” level of comfort, the resulting energy demand for those billions of people will be vast. Nine billion “washing machine people” would require around one-and-a-half times as much energy as was used in 2010, even if none of them ever fly in a plane, use air conditioning, or own a private car.
Should we take washing machine access as our goal, then? Could it be achieved by combining rapid global deployment of Swedish-style public infrastructure and zero-emission grids on the one hand, and radically reducing First World consumption on the other? Given the tight coupling of emissions and human development, the first part of this proposition is undoubtedly essential. I’m not convinced, however, that calls for individual sacrifice are politically useful or viable. Personally, I find the idea of global convergence on a low-energy future depressing. In my vision of the good life, any ordinary person might hope to spend a semester studying overseas, perform the Hajj, visit family during Golden Week, or attend the World Cup. I also suspect that many, if not most, of those required to perform such sacrifices would be more likely to continue prioritizing the immediate benefits of aviation and car-ownership over the abstract goal of reducing GHG emissions through abstinence. I happen to be an animal liberationist, so I like Thunberg’s opposition to beef and dairy consumption. But I’m also aware that meat consumption is interwoven with human culture and identity and that many poor people would love to eat more of it. I can’t imagine a tolerable system of government that could restrict consumption — of meat, aviation, cars or other major sources of emissions — at a speed and to a degree commensurate with the urgency of the climate crisis. Consequently, I don’t view material austerity as a viable solution. Above all, it’s hard to ignore the central political problem with green austerity: to date, no one has figured out how to make economic degrowth consistent with social stability.
The more likely path to global convergence, by contrast, might see nine billion people living in a similar manner to those of us in the First World. In this scenario, total energy demand would climb to about five times what it is today. Or, given slightly reduced consumption in the rich world and increasing human development everywhere else, consumption might instead converge around today’s level in Sweden, a highly energy-efficient country. In this scenario, global primary energy consumption would be roughly four times greater than it is today.
Crucially, either scenario assumes that the poor world’s demands for modern energy will, and should, be satisfied. Operating under that assumption — which I think we must, if we are at all interested in a more just and equitable world — we’ll need to find a way to dramatically expand energy access even as we approach zero emissions. As a result, development and deployment of a raft of new zero-carbon technologies must make their way to the center of our political organizing. And only the state, I would argue, has the capacity and social license to drive such a large-scale, capital-intensive transition.
The “Carbon Majors” Report’s roll call of the world’s highest-emitting companies — Saudi Aramco, Gazprom, National Iranian Oil — is hardly an advertisement for the societal benefits brought by fossil fuels. In fact, the eight largest “corporate” emitters are majority state-owned enterprises from Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, India, China, and the United Arab Emirates. The list brings to mind an old political science idea known as the “rentier state” thesis, which holds that “rentier” wealth (in this case, gained from fossil fuels) tends to undermine democracy. Why? Many argue that unearned wealth empowers the state vis-à-vis civil society, finances patronage networks, and by obviating the need for taxation, undermines popular demand for democratization. The “rentier state” thesis was developed long before climate change was understood, but it illustrates one way the critique of “extractivism” is on the mark. Although fossil fuels have delivered dramatic improvements in human welfare, the social impacts of this wealth have never been easy to manage. The claim that extractivist elites have opposed effective responses to climate change is all too accurate. The historical record confirms that some entities really have worked to undermine climate science and to oppose effective mitigation policies. Moreover, early efforts by fossil fuel lobbyists to sow doubt in climate science have undoubtedly bloomed into a broader movement of denial.
Yet for all this harm, any analysis that focuses primarily on extractivist elites is still sure to lead to a political dead end. Yes, energy companies (like airlines, cattle farmers, and most other contributors to global warming) have worked to defend the status quo. And yes, “blockadia” can play a useful role in disrupting their power. But we must also recognize that extractivists are powerful only because fossil fuels satisfy the material needs of ordinary people. The fundamental feature of our dilemma is that climate change is produced by the same technologies that enable human development. If rich-world people like me and Naomi Klein spend our time endlessly critiquing the wealth, power, and consumption of the hyper-privileged, then we’ll continue to neglect our own privilege — privilege that we have no right or grounds to deny to the rest of the world. Worse, we’ll continue failing to mobilize around a political program of technological innovation that might finally decouple emissions from human development — surely the only just response to the twin challenges of global inequality and climate change.
If we could wave a magic wand and eliminate emissions caused by the most profligate 10 percent, the world as a whole would still be on a trajectory toward “dangerous” warming. If we could wave our wand again and address global poverty and inequality — as we must — emissions would in all likelihood increase. Only by transforming the technological “metabolism” of the global economy will we ever successfully sever the nexus between carbon emissions and material welfare. Few readers of this journal will be surprised by the argument that an effective climate movement must focus not only on the balance of power but also on the technological basis of economic production. Nor will they be shocked to learn that the obstacles preventing a transition to a 100 percent renewable economy are more complex than a conspiracy among a tiny cabal of Republican donors, Saudi Sheikhs, and princelings from the Chinese party-state. Unfortunately, the argument that states remain the primary actors with the capacity and legitimacy to drive low-carbon innovation lacks the emotional punch of claims that rapacious elites are destroying the planet for kicks. The real challenge lies in developing an equally compelling narrative in support of zero-carbon innovation.
I don’t have the answer to making zero-carbon innovation exciting, but I wish I could warn Thunberg about another group of “powerful people” standing in the way of effective climate action. These are the people who tell us it’s wrong to view technological innovation as an important part of the climate response. These people are not in the least bit villainous or rapacious. In fact, they are often kind and well-meaning. And their beliefs that small is beautiful, that traditional is healthful, that local is ethical, and that individual choices are politically powerful seem to offer a path to a gentler, greener world. Unfortunately, theirs is too simple a solution for so complex a challenge. If we organize our collective climate response around such a retreat from modernity, we will only end up undermining the very values — of universalism and equality — that these well-meaning elites claim to support. If our goal is universal human and ecological flourishing, then we must think in bolder, more systemic ways. We must demand not only the distribution of power and wealth, but also the reinvention of the technological underpinnings of our societies.
Thunberg has struck a chord with so many people in part because she recognizes that all of us who are ‘air’ or ‘washing machine’ people, are elite beneficiaries of extractivism. One part of her message to the political class has been to stop underestimating our capacity for self-awareness and self-assessment. She urges our leaders to embrace the possibility that we can handle the inconvenient truth that fossil fuel consumption both enables human development and endangers it. That we are ready to confront difficult questions about the cost that will have to be paid to address climate change, and to speak truthfully about what sorts of sacrifice, individual and collective, we are likely to tolerate in doing so. If she is right about that — if we are indeed prepared to ask ourselves difficult questions and rally around the kinds of solutions those questions lead to — we will do well to follow her lead.
This essay was adapted from Ecomodernism: Technology, Politics and the Climate Crisis by Jonathan Symons, which was published by Polity Press. 256 pp, $19.95.