Wolfgang Knorr – The Climate Party of the Rich

The rich do not see the climate emergency as a crisis. For them it is another business opportunity.

Wolfgang Knorr is a climate scientist, consultant for the European Space Agency and guest researcher at the Department of Geography and Ecosystem Science, Lund University


Have you ever heard about the terms ‘baseline’ and ‘carbon credits’ in the context of ‘net zero’? If not, they are not difficult to understand, but their moral implications are highly interesting.

Let me explain. Suppose you have a rich person who earns several millions of dollars per year, and a poor person who earns hardly enough to get by. The rich person gives 100,000$ to charity, and the poor person takes care of the neighbour’s kids when they are sick or in need in other ways. Who is the better person?

Enter the climate regime of the United Nations. One of its main mechanisms is a reward scheme for avoided emissions of greenhouse gases, such as (chiefly) carbon dioxide. By avoiding emissions of carbon dioxide you are awarded carbon ‘credits’. And at the very heart of its logic lies the term ‘baseline’. The baseline is the hypothetical future in which the avoidance has not taken place.

To apply this to our example, the rich person’s ‘baseline’ is a high-consumption lifestyle, of which he gives up a small portion by donating to charity, and ‘credit’ is given to the amount of avoidance, in this case 100,000$. The poor person’s ‘baseline’ is no consumption beyond basic needs, and the ‘credit’ is not even quantifiable, but if you were to quantify it, it would probably lie in the 100s of $, depending on the average salary of the country.

You think that sounds absurd, outrageous and repulsive? In the UN’s climate regime, it is even worse, because the ‘carbon credits’ can be sold on a carbon market. So corporations engaging in such schemes do not necessarily do it for charity, but to get even richer. This way of thinking is so deeply ingrained in our modern, Western society, we hardly notice it. Take the term, popular in the Anglosaxon world, of the ‘high net-worth individual’. As if ‘worth’ was associated only with money and nothing else.

I was recently reminded of this when I read an article about the sales statistics of electric cars in Switzerland. Under the top five, four were SUVs or large limousines with engines up to 534 bhp – two Teslas and two models by the Volkswagen holding. A reasonably small car, a Fiat, could be found only on position 5, and further down more SUVs and heavy limousines. Apart from the resources bound in the manufacturing process, these huge e-cars consume about twice as much electric energy as the small car, so the article.

The logic this seems to follow is: the bigger the electric car I drive, the more I do for the climate, and the better I feel about it. At first this seemed absurd, but then I realised that this follows exactly the logic of the UN’s carbon credit regime. If my ‘baseline’ is driving a 3-ton internal-combustion SUV, then switching to an electric one I save the planet more carbon emissions than a driver of a small car switching to electric drivetrain. Not to speak of someone not able to afford a car in the first place.

This is a narrative that the car industry is banking on heavily, of course, they owe it to their shareholders. But it is also one that has much deeper roots in our society. It is evident for example in the sales figures of Bill Gates’ latest book on the climate crisis, someone who openly admits that until recently he had almost no clue about the topic. In it, he pushes further the belief that we need the party of the rich getting even richer to save us from the climate disaster through tech solutions.

The political disaster associated with this narrative is that it makes the climate issue deeply unpopular with voters who are not rich. Protecting the climate is becoming a pastime for the wealthy to make them feel good, while those who can’t afford it are even more marginalised and morally humiliated. It is an injustice so absurd, that it can only be characterised as the morality of the conqueror. When large parts of the population then start to rebel and vote for populist politicians, the main victim is the awareness of the pending physical climate disaster itself. It is like two neighbours quarrelling and not seeing their houses on fire.

I believe there is a widespread sense of helplessness and a feeling of deeply ingrained injustice, at the heart of the oft-reported plummeting trust in the political system, and unfortunately the situation does not work in favour of any meaningful climate action any time soon. One of the most urgent tasks is therefore to convince those who distrust the mainstream climate narrative, that they are right about being cheated, but that unfortunately the physical climate system does not care about all this. Let’s all help to end the vicious climate party of the rich.

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