A recent opinion poll in the US had 70% of respondents agreeing that global warming was happening.
After a decade or more of IPCC reports and any number of respected scientists pointing to the evidence, not to mention the school kids gathering in the streets, the message appears to have landed with a significant majority.
Climate-related disasters worldwide that grabbed headlines helped, as did the heavy-duty local weather events that everyone has experienced in the last few years.
Of course, that 70% changes on party lines. Almost all Democrats, some 89%, accept the science of a climate emergency, whilst 42% of Republicans agreed that global warming is a reality and a third deny it altogether.
When it came to what causes climate change, two-thirds of Democrats went with a human cause. One in five Republicans agree humans are responsible, many citing disagreement among scientists as the reason for doubt. No matter that a separate survey of scientists had near-unanimous agreement (99.9%) that the climate emergency results from human actions.
All this is pretty predictable and has been in the wind for a while.
Report after report has carried the evidence.
In 2021, the United Nations World Meteorological Organization (WMO) State of the Global Climate 2020 reported carbon dioxide levels at 413.2 parts per million in 2020, rising more than the average rate over the last decade despite a temporary dip in emissions during COVID-19 lockdowns.
After the long and hostile climate denial wars that still linger in some parts of the world, notably in the Australian government, most people are convinced that something is happening. However, Greta would be quick to say that we are not concerned enough about the crisis.
Back to the original opinion survey in the US where there is a statistic that explains the delay and the lack of urgency.
More than 60% of respondents said oil and gas companies were “completely or mostly responsible” for global warming.
Ah, yes, the ‘them, not us’ response.
The majority now believe in the science that says climate change is real but another majority reckon it is the fault of the fossil fuel industry.
It is worth a pause here.
Let that response sink in.
Close to two out of three people blame the oil companies for global warming.
Only those companies, who admittedly are out to maximise shareholder value, the same objective of just about every other for-profit organisation on the planet, are extracting and selling a resource. They can do this because they have buyers.
Now those buyers are other companies that convert oil to energy or put the refined oil into their aircraft and commercial vehicles or refine the oil into a host of products that end up on the shelves of retail outlets.
We buy the products and a ticket to put our butt in seat F3 of the Airbus A380.
I think this ‘them, not us’ dissonance is more critical than taking a decade to get the science.
It explains why the youngsters are so frustrated at the ‘blah, blah, blah’. They know that rhetoric panders to this avoidance of responsibility.
Luckily, it is all fine because we have Boris, Scotty, and Donald. Oh my lordy.
In the early 1990s, I lived in southern Africa. Specifically, the newly prosperous country of Botswana. What an experience.
I should say a privilege because that is what it felt like to spend seven years in such a magnificent country. Read any of the 22 Alexander McCall-Smith novels about the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, and you will get the idea of what it was like—slow, relaxed and, well, African.
The No. 1 Ladies Detective, Mma Ramotswe, didn’t mention as she tootled along the dirt roads in her tiny Nissan, that road travel in Botswana was risky. Even today, Botswana is well above the global average for road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants.
Back in the 1990s, this was not surprising.
Locals were driving for the first time. Most were first-generation vehicle owners at the wheel of brand new Toyota 4.2L landcruiser wagons, many with a fondness for sorghum beer and the art of binge drinking. Then there were the donkeys, cows, and goats spread randomly on the highways plus the perils of keeping traction along the corrugations of the dirt roads. You have to drive faster than seems reasonable or the beer shakes itself.
I was cautious in the car, but those donkeys refused to step aside for anyone so I decided that my second-hand hi-lux needed insurance against the chance of damage. My colleague at the University was from Belgium, and he had a very different take on the risk to his vehicles. He saved thousands on insurance premiums not paid, but neither of us had an accident or nefariousness over vehicles in 10 years.
So much for risk management. It is just luck, good or bad, and there is nothing to do. Only a fool pays the premiums.
Skip forward to 2015 and 8,000 km northward to continental Europe.
In Paris, 196 Parties entered into a legally international treaty on climate change designed to “limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels”. This temperature goal is about a climate neutral world by mid-century and is like the insurance policy I took out to travel African roads. It makes perfect sense.
Science has established that greenhouse gas emissions are warming the climate. Anything above 2 degrees Celcius will put the entire global food system at risk from drought, flood and more intense weather events.
196 parties represent most of the jurisdictions and most of the people in the world. Many of those people are concerned the agreement is not enough and that more action is needed. They have missed school to protest.
This lengthy preamble introduces a decision by the Australian government in a budget statement a few weeks out from a general election in 2022 to cut climate spending if returned to power at the election.
The 2022-23 budget papers show funding will fall from $2bn next financial year to $1.9bn, $1.5bn and $1.3bn in three years. The fall represents a 35% annual cut over four years.
There are many rants about the Australian government and its politicians not reading the room or being out of touch or going to Hawaii when monster bushfires are impacting your constituents. Still, this one is so whacky that it cannot be a bungle. They must have done it on purpose.
So why did they?
I have been listening to an excellent podcast by Nate Hagens called The Great Simplification and unreservedly recommend it. In conversations with several of his academic colleagues and senior political leaders, Hagens asks about why humanity has been incredibly successful and at the point of simplification—a euphemism for collapse.
The bottom line is that humans have leveraged the energy in fossil fuels for a free ride to prosperity and vast numbers.
The planet now has close to 8 billion people who use energy, equivalent to another 500 billion people if humans were doing all the work done by oil, coal and gas. In other words, our bodies and our societies are the product of fossil fuel use. And this is before we get to the use of oil for making stuff.
We are good at resources, technology, and making the most of opportunities. We have forgotten the flip side of opportunity because modern economies have little choice but to run with the fossil fuel story. We are stuck in the paradigm of ubiquitous, cheap energy, polluting the planet and changing the climate.
Our risk is growing as fast as our debt.
Only none of this can be real. It fails to fit the neoliberal paradigm, which has wormed its way into most heads, that growth is the only way. It gave us wealth and can keep on giving so long as we stick with it.
The Great Simplification explains why this is nonsense. Limitless growth is impossible on a finite planet, no matter how clever the technology or lucky it was to have an old energy battery under the ground.
Alright, so why did the Australian government decide to cut climate spending? The simplistic answer is that they cannot give up their religious adherence to growth. Only the reality is the lack of a credible alternative paradigm to maintain wealth creation at the rate generated from the gift of fossil energy. Renewables will be cleaner, but they are far less efficient than oil because they cost money to make, maintain and replace. Plus, energy replacement is only part of the story. Where are the alternative materials for all the stuff we make from oil?
Adherence has another benefit.
The neoliberal paradigm blinds us all to the risk, so we decide, like my friend in Botswana, not to pay the premium and take our chances with the donkeys.
Casual observation over time suggests they are characterized by inconsistent or contradictory elements. One minute they are persuading us of the necessity of fiscal frugality, that money doesn’t grow on trees, and a balanced budget is the desire of all sensible governments.
The next minute they spend up big to bail out ailing economies that would fail without a subsidy borrowed against the future.
They have been having these ‘breakdowns in the relation between thought, emotion, and behaviour, leading to faulty perception, inappropriate actions and feelings, withdrawal from reality and personal relationships into fantasy and delusion’ for quite a while.
Over two centuries ago, the Panic of 1792 was the first time the U.S. federal government intervened to prop up the markets. During that crisis, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton authorized purchases to prevent the collapse of the securities market.
The Great Depression between 1929 and 1941 began with the stock market crash of 1929 and included banking panics in 1930 and 1931, included a government program to buy and refinance defaulted mortgages that kept a million families in their homes.
The Savings & Loan crisis between 1986 and 1995, when nearly a third of the 3,234 savings and loan associations in the United States failed, cost the government $160 billion (in 1990 dollars) to clean up.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. government authorized more than $2 trillion in assistance including direct cash payments to citizens in April and December 2020, and again in March 2021.
In between these moments of apparent madness, the modern neoliberal mantra is fiscal conservatism — small government, small spending, deregulation and an unencumbered faith that the market will save everyone.
What this history tells us is that what gets done in a crisis is very different to business-as-usual and could even be the exact opposite of it. Interventions that save people from tragedy are necessary and moral.
And for the most part, the madness works. Excessive bonuses to executives notwithstanding, bailouts do seem to save economies and reduce impacts on communities.
At least for a time.
Most environmentalists will tell you that the environment is in trouble and has been ever since the industrial revolution changed the way humans interact with nature.
So this question from one of those advocates, George Monbiot, is a conundrum.
Why do nations rescue banks and other financial institutions but not the planet?
Why not save the planet?
Well, perhaps the answer to the central question stems from the biblical notions of dominion.
Why save something that humanity was designed to exploit?
Maybe it is because nature has been through troubles before and shown remarkable resilience. Over geological time climate changes, massive atmospheric disruption and even meteorite strikes have come and gone with nature none the worse. Admittedly she takes time to recover from shocks but is still remarkably resilient.
It is worth remembering that there was more biological diversity on the planet a hundred years ago than at any other time in the history of life on earth—biodiversity is a consequence of time, disturbance and a replicator molecule.
No need to spend money on a rescue because nature will recover herself.
Perhaps it is ignorance of the crisis itself. People with spending power have no vision of the environmental crisis. They are, after all, more likely to be focused on the banks when they look up from their single bottom line. Plus nature is the perennial provider of goods and services that humans have a right and moral responsibility to exploit.
No vision of the problem so there is no problem.
It could be that money can’t buy nature’s happiness because no matter what is spent, nature would not notice. Why spend vast sums on the environment when she has no ability to respond to the spending. Anyway, there is nothing to see if the food keeps growing and the people keep spending.
No use throwing good money on something that can’t be fixed.
It could be that money could buy nature her happiness but she is a fickle thing and it is not clear what to spend the money on. In the financial crises the ailments were obvious and the salve equally so. Other than emission reduction that may or may not reverse climate changes, spending on the environment to save nature is a mystery with no obvious return on investment.
No point in spending on random actions.
Cognitive dissonance is a possibility. This intriguing explanation from psychology says that when two actions or ideas are not psychologically consistent with each other, people do all in their power to change them until they become consistent. Rather than accept an inconsistency we look for ways to resolve the conflict to reduce our emotional discomfort. The easy option, call it fake news and decide that the garden remains full of roses.
No environmental problem can exist if it makes me feel bad.
And finally, in this incomplete list, it could also be that the planet is not in need of rescue. Nature isn’t sentient and couldn’t care less what happens. The planet is a small blue ball in a vast universe that happens to have organic life that persists in spite of drastic perturbations. No matter what life does, the rock will continue to fly across space until the sun grows to consume it. Such an opinion is heresy but it does fit the evidence.
There is no Gaia to save.
So there we have it. A preliminary list of reasons why humans save banks and not the planet. No doubt I have missed many others and will be reminded of them in the comments.
We do know this…
Whatever humans do over the next hundred years or so, 100,000 years from now the planet will still be here.
In my comfortable home with a fridge full of food, potable water in the tap, and all the modern conveniences of a western lifestyle, I am one of the most fortunate people lucky enough to have existed.
Life is not all roses and freshly ground coffee. Two years ago, a massive 300,000 ha wildfire threatened our suburb after the previous one destroyed our backyard. Along with everyone else, we struggled through COVID lockdowns, survived shortages of toilet rolls, and went along to get vaccinated. Just as the lockdown rules were relaxed, we sloshed our way through the wettest summer I can remember as our region was declared a disaster area in the floods of early March and April 2022. But the record-breaking weather didn’t lead the newsfeed because there was a horrible unnecessary war in Europe.
So when I pinch myself, I am numb, not quite sure how to be grateful for my good luck.
There is a knot in my stomach. I realise that the current events are just harbingers—signals of what is to come. And although in my comfort, I have no right to be fearful, I am.
Here is why. I have a niggling question.
How are we going to feed everyone well?
Nothing like a pile of healthy greens—source Alloporus
Food prices will rise
Bread is a staple in the diet of billions of people worldwide. In 2021 global wheat production was around 766 million tons. Three countries make up 30% of the world’s production: Ukraine 26 million, Russian Federation 73 million, and China 132 million. Russia and Ukraine export about a quarter of the world’s wheat and half of its sunflower products.
Even if we assume that Ukrainian farmers will continue to grow crops when the conflict subsides, there will be a disruption to supply in 2022 and beyond.
Some countries are heavily exposed to this disruption.
Egypt imports the most grain, including around 5.60% of the world’s wheat imports. Flatbread is a staple food in Egypt, where the government has subsidised bread for decades but plans to raise the price. Egypt imported 6.1 million tonnes of wheat in 2021, with Russia supplying 4.2 million tonnes worth $1.2 billion. What happens if the Egyptians need to source wheat from elsewhere?
“I cannot provide 20 loaves of bread at the cost of one cigarette.”
Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, Egyptian President
In Tunisia, where the state controls the price of bread, half the country’s wheat imports come from Ukraine, and since the war started, wheat prices have risen to a 14-year high.
Lebanon imports more than half of its wheat from Ukraine and reportedly has only weeks worth of supply.
“Over time, depending on the length and the severity of this war, you could begin to see shortages of shipments that come to the African continent, and that could cause shortages. Particularly in the North African countries, and to an extent in East Africa.”
Wandile Sihlobo, Chief economist, Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa
I could go on, but when staple foods are not on the shelves or price rises put them out of reach, the social consequences reach further than toilet tissue.
In the acute phase of the conflict, people will treat these challenges like disasters. They will rally, help each other, and strike new trade deals.
But the combination of war, COVID disruption, and population growth are not like a natural disaster that comes and goes away, leaving some clean air to rebuild and recover.
Given we have bread on our minds, annual wheat production in the EU has been around 120 million tons for a decade. This is a little more than Russia and Ukraine combined.
Almost all of this production comes from intensive input-driven agriculture. Failure to add fertiliser and yield declines rapidly because the soils are already depleted from centuries of production.
Bread is humans eating fertiliser (or drinking oil).
And for the EU, a quarter of this fertiliser comes from Russia.
Russia produces 50 million tons of fertilisers every year, 13% of the world’s total, and is a significant exporter of potash, phosphate, and nitrogen-containing fertilisers. Economic sanctions will hurt the Russian economy, but restricting fertiliser exports would be an equivalent retaliation to impact the west.
But fertiliser supply is not all that Russia controls.
Ammonia is a critical ingredient in nitrogen fertilisers. It is made from natural gas. Yara International, one of the largest fertiliser producers in Europe, cut 40% of its production capacity in Europe in 2021 before the conflict because of a spike in the price of wholesale gas.
Self-sufficiency is not just about farmers. It is about the tools of their trade and the inputs they need to get the job done.
“Half the world’s population gets food as a result of fertilisers… and if that’s removed from the field for some crops, [the yield] will drop by 50%… For me, it’s not whether we are moving into a global food crisis – it’s how large the crisis will be.“
Svein Tore Holsether, CEO, Yara International
Homemade pavlova that was simply delicious—Alloporus
Global food supply.
A lot has happened to the world since WW2. Most of it was peaceful, at least for the average citizen in Europe or the US.
Once the Cold War ended, globalisation took over. Products, components, energy, and expertise come from anywhere and go anywhere, especially food.
Currently, enough food is grown to feed everyone. Goods made or produced are shipped everywhere through a global supply system to arrive just in time. Many western countries rely heavily on this trade. They find it cheaper to buy the food than grow it themselves. Governments can point to the efficiency of the global food system to justify the easy option.
However, food production systems lack resilience.
A small example. There are 74,542 farms and 1,000 agricultural and food companies in Minnesota, but there are shortages everywhere because the supply chain is down over 5,000 commercial drivers. Brexit and then COVID created a similar problem for British consumers who get 80% of their food from France, Germany, the Netherlands and over 150 other countries.
Problems with distribution, access and waste leave one in ten of the global population hungry. Historically, most of these people lived in poorer countries, but the US and UK examples show the jurisdictional us and them breaking down.
Hungry people exist everywhere.
Intensive agriculture that only produces cheap food with an energy subsidy and just in time trade is precarious.
Scarcity is a failed crop away.
Feeding the poor well
“War leads to greater food insecurity, and food insecurity increases the chance of unrest and violence. So a conflict in Ukraine leading to hunger and pushing people into food insecurity elsewhere could have [the] potential for unrest and violence in other areas. And really, the world cannot afford another conflict.”
Abeer Etefa, World Food Programme spokesperson based in Cairo
Back in my comfortable home with a fridge full of food and my status as one of the fortunate people feels secure.
Putting food in the fridge costs me roughly 10% of the household income. Should the food prices rise globally, I will feel inconvenienced. In only eight countries in the world do residents spend less than 10% of their household income on food: US, Singapore, UK, Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, Australia and Austria.
The average Kenyan spends $543 a year on food, a fifth of the money spent by an average American. But that $543 is equivalent to 47% of disposable income. Double food prices, and the average Kenyan has no money left for anything else.
This high proportional spending on food is not just about poorer countries.
Over the past 25 years, USDA estimates suggest that the poorest 20% of households in the US spent between 30% and 43% of their income on food. This explains in part why there are 40 million Americans on food stamps.
Any inequity in access to resources is made more acute by a crisis. When prices rise, it is usually because of high demand, supply constrictions, or both. In all the higher price scenarios, the poor have less flexibility and suffer the consequences before anyone else.
Oxfam estimated that as of September 2021, 18 months into the pandemic, the economic decline, mass unemployment and severely disrupted food production led to a 40% surge in global food prices—the highest rise in over a decade—and more than 40 million people experiencing extreme levels of hunger, a 70% increase over the previous year.
We can predict that famines will be publicised and the acute phases will be supported with global aid. There might even be another LiveAid concert or two.
What will be harder to do is to support the poor diffused through otherwise prosperous-looking societies. These impoverished people will need policy changes to reduce their immediate food insecurity and create opportunities to earn more as food prices rise.
Thanks for reading this far into such a torrid story. It is scary to think about these issues but they are critical. They must be open for honest adult discussion because humanity will face disaster with our pants around our ankles if we fail to prepare.
Fear makes us irrational, so we have to take courage, overcome our worries and start coming up with solutions.
I co-founded sustainably FED as a tiny contribution. Please go over and check it out.
When I was growing up through the 1970s the only financial advice that stuck with me was the rule of thirds on what to do with income. It was to allocate one third on rent, one third to spending for everyday living, and a third saved.
Oh, how naive; how quaint.
Today rents in England account for half of the tenants’ take-home pay if you are lucky enough to live outside London. In the big smoke expect the proportion to be 75%.
The rent just ate the savings.
And for today’s younger renters there is no bailout from inheritance despite the apparent wealth of the baby boomers. The typical inheritance age in the UK is somewhere around 60, and the median amount handed down is about £11,000.
Not surprisingly the youth are not happy.
The Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) in the UK, was brave enough to publish numbers that suggest 80% of youngsters blame capitalism for the housing crisis, 75% believe the climate emergency is “specifically a capitalist problem” and 72% back sweeping nationalisation.
Worst statistic of all for a right-wing think tank—67% of youngsters want to live under a socialist economic system.
It’s a similar story in the US.
A Harvard University study in 2016 found that more than 50% of young people reject capitalism, while a 2018 Gallup poll found that 45% of young Americans saw capitalism favourably, down from 68% in 2010.
So much for the libertarian land of opportunity.
And so much for the trickle-down.
The numbers for youngsters do not add up anymore.
At the end of 2021 in Sydney, the average house was selling for $1.36 million and units for $837,000 with a typical Sydney house about $340,000 more expensive than it was at the end of 2020.
Take a deep breath for this statistic—the rise in value in a year matches the full cost of a house just 25 years ago.
Who can afford the mortgage?
Borrow the money to purchase one of these $1.3 million houses to avoid paying rent and you will need $65,000 on the minimum 5% deposit and expect to pay back the bank $4,500 a month for 30 years.
Total repayments of 1.62 million at $54,000 per year in after-tax dollars.
The average salary of an Australian in 2021 was around A$99,600 per year with a wide range starting around A$33,000 and a median salary of A$72,000.
Assuming an approximate tax burden of 25%, a single person on $72,000 could pay the mortgage but would have zero dollars left for any of the other bills life throws their way.
Clearly, this is not sustainable.
Rather than do what most of us baby boomers would do and lament the loss of the picket fence and the Sundays spent painting it white, how about a reboot.
What if ownership was not the only route to the long-term security of house and home?
What if we invented new social norms that not only promoted rents but removed the landlord. Let’s take rent-seeking out of the equation and have society build the housing stock at cost, then rent that stock to individuals in the community at rates that reflect recovery of those costs and perhaps a modest return linked to the bank rate.
You know, the sort of thing a sovereign wealth fund could handle.