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Survival of the Richest: Navigating Carbon Inequalities

As COP28 prepares to get underway, a recent report from Oxfam points out the starkly disproportionate carbon emissions of the richest 1% compared to the poorest 66%. Does the solution lie in stronger international policing of emissions, or does it require a more radical shift in worldview?

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In contemplating the statistics surrounding climate change, one cannot help but feel the abstraction from our daily existence. The intricacies of the science, the vast scale of the issue, and the seemingly imprecise trajectory - all contribute to a sense of detachment.

Oxfam recently took a swing at making the abstract feel a bit more concrete by pointing the proverbial finger of responsibility at a particular group of people. In a report on carbon inequality, Oxfam calculated that the wealthiest 1% of the population emits, with staggering nonchalance, as much carbon as the poorest 66% and therefore bears responsibility for a staggering amount of climate-related suffering. 

The timing of this report was no doubt planned to lead into the COP28 summit, commencing at the end of November. COP President Dr. Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber has set out four key themes for the conference: to fast-track the transition away from fossil fuels, to transform climate finance, to focus on the role of people and nature in the transition, and to ensure inclusivity for all participants. This report from Oxfam on carbon inequality lands squarely within these last two themes and should find some fertile ground for discussion. While discussions will undoubtedly focus on mitigating the impacts of climate change and who pays what for loss and damages, two deep truths woven into the report are worth paying attention to.  

The first is a point that climate science has been screaming about for decades – we are not atomised individuals but profoundly connected. It’s not a novel observation – Martin Luther King Junior made this point eloquently in his 1967 Christmas sermon: “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” It’s an inconvenient fact we are apt to suppress or ignore. The climate is no respecter of personal autonomy or national boundaries, and this report clarifies that our carbon emissions have sharp teeth, especially for those clinging to the bottom rungs of the economic ladder. 

The second and related point is that the influence we have on others entails a measure of responsibility that is seldom fully acknowledged. The Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl observed this tendency when he lamented that there was no Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast of the US to balance the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast. We are prone to focus too much on our rights and not enough on our responsibilities, failing to see how our decisions impact others. In a quote often attributed to the moral philosopher J.S Mill, “Your right to swing your fist in my direction ends where my nose begins”.  

Like I said, nothing new to see here, though perhaps each report like this pulls these deep truths into sharper focus. No doubt there will be technocratic solutions emerging to address carbon inequality, but these will be circumvented by those who have the will and the means. At the risk of sounding trite, a change of heart is really what’s needed – something at the fundamental level of how we attend and value the planet and one another.  

Albert Einstein wrote that experiencing our life as a kind of independent entity is a delusion, and “the striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion.” The story narrated through the Bible in this sense offers a ‘true religion’, and seeks to disabuse us of our delusions. It begins with the created order being offered as a good gift to be stewarded – to care for and look after. Life itself is viewed as a gift, as is the centrepiece of the Bible where Jesus gave “his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The story running through the Bible is powered by the transformative power of ‘gift logic’, as author Nick Spencer argues here. Gifts are free by definition, but receiving them demands a response, as Jesus warned his followers in the Gospel of Luke: “To whom much is given, much will be required.” 

The state cannot mandate generosity nor give a sense of responsibility, but the realisation that we are in receipt of a gift is transformational: creation, life, forgiveness, love – all of these motivate the heart when received as unearned gifts. The call is clear: give as you have been given, forgive as you have been forgiven, and love as you have first been loved. In the face of COP 28’s limitations, ‘true religion,’ as Einstein puts it, retains the power to dismantle pernicious delusions and usher in the logic of a gift-inspired economy. 

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