Capitalism and Climate Change

Keepcups, canvas bags, cycling to uni - you probably know these as ways that you can reduce your carbon footprint. Knowledge of climate change is universal in the UK, and so are ways we can help, but these are often presented in terms of individuals and what we can do. These personal changes are admirable and they are certainly effective; but by presenting an individualistic, neoliberal, and apolitical approach to climate change, we ignore the systematic way that the global North and multinational corporations have caused and continue to exacerbate rising temperatures. Capitalism is causing climate change, and only through radically re-approaching our world system can we tackle it.

Climate change is not natural, nor are its effects equally distributed. Those who contribute least to climate change – the world’s poor and marginalized – bear its worst effects. The world’s wealthiest nations and multinational corporations, who produce the most greenhouse gas emissions, have the privilege of ignoring or adapting to climate change’s effects. The racial and neo-colonial implications of climate change are essential, and environmental causes need to be framed around a language of justice and social equity.

The world’s poor bear the brunt of climate change. They are more likely to live in areas with environmental hazards, often lack the infrastructure to survive the increasing frequency of natural disasters which climate change will cause (and is already causing) and the resources to rebuild after such events. Marginalized communities in the global South are especially vulnerable, as they lack the capacity to adapt to climate change, especially those whose livelihoods depend on agriculture or who live in drought-prone areas with water scarcity. Low-income communities in urban areas across the globe bear the burden of ill-health, as they are much more likely to live in areas with air pollution. Corporations and wealthy nations, on the other hand, contribute disproportionately to climate change. 100 companies have been the source of over 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, according to the Carbon Majors Report. These multinational corporations are fundamentally at fault. Yet they have financial resources, political and economic positions of power, and market logic to avoid doing their fair share.

While politicians in the global North (*coughDonaldTrumpcough*) debate whether or not climate change is a hoax, struggle to meet emissions standards, and sign diplomatic agreements only to later back out of them, people in the global South are experiencing the effects of climate change right now. They don’t have the privilege or the political voice to be heard within environmental discourse. Bangladesh, for example, is one of the most vulnerable nations to climate change because of its high population density, low elevation, and susceptibility to natural disasters, which have been increasing in both frequency and severity. There were 946,000 Bangladeshi people displaced in 2017 alone, most often people living in poverty with already unstable livelihoods, who most commonly end up in rural slums in capital Dhaka. The case in Bangladesh is just one example among many of how climate change intersects with broader issues of poverty, development, colonialism, and capitalism.

The injustice of capitalism is at the core of climate change – corporations and wealthy nations contribute most to greenhouse gas emissions, and marginalized people face the effects. Capitalist logic, with a focus on profit, efficiency, and short-term gains, will not be sufficient to save the environment. ‘Green capitalism’ aims to combine environmental and market goals, through programs like the carbon credit system. By this system, corporations who cannot curb their carbon emissions purchase ‘credits’ which offset their emissions by providing money to renewable projects. This program is one of many attempts to add a moral and environmental slant to the behavior of corporations.

But this solution, and green capitalist programs like it, ignore the systematic inequality at the heart of climate change. Carbon credits allow big businesses to continue to pollute, places the responsibility on renewable projects (often in the global South), and leads to the commodification of public goods and greenhouse gas emissions. More radical solutions are necessary, rather than shoddy band-aids to appease the guilty consciences of corporations. Business models need to change, corporations must be held accountable, and climate change needs to be framed as an urgent justice issue, rather than an abstract phenomenon to be solved by metal straws and online petitions.


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