Climate emergency: how the inequality crisis is dynamically linked to the sociogenesis of climate change

Author: Mark Harvey1
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  • 1 University of Essex, , UK
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The failure of COP26 to secure binding commitments delivering a pathway to global warming limited to 1.5°C is attributable to a UN political process that prevents addressing the inequalities between and within nations in generating greenhouse gases. Historical divergences of national wealth and the present extreme inequalities of purchasing power (Piketty, Milanovic, Savage) manifest themselves in how the richest people in the richest nations are now the leading forcers of climate change. A second dimension of inequality, receiving less attention, concerns the inequalities between nations of environmental resources in fossil energy, agricultural land, minerals and renewable alternatives. The concept of sociogenesis of climate change analyses the combination of these two dimensions of inequality to account for the present political impasse, national and international. A dominant feature of a nation’s wealth has historically been based on the unrestricted exploitation of its own environmental resources, or those that it commands through colonisation or trade. This has resulted in the US now producing more than double the CO₂eq per capita than China, or Germany consuming four times more coal per capita than India. The COP26 impasse on coal and fossil fuels arose in part from China’s and India’s unwillingness to strand its environmental assets without alternative pathways to equivalent national wealth, while wealthier nations continue to excessively exploit theirs. A sociogenic analysis of wealth and environmental resource inequalities signals the need for a radical change in the political processes required to mitigate the climate emergency.

Abstract

The failure of COP26 to secure binding commitments delivering a pathway to global warming limited to 1.5°C is attributable to a UN political process that prevents addressing the inequalities between and within nations in generating greenhouse gases. Historical divergences of national wealth and the present extreme inequalities of purchasing power (Piketty, Milanovic, Savage) manifest themselves in how the richest people in the richest nations are now the leading forcers of climate change. A second dimension of inequality, receiving less attention, concerns the inequalities between nations of environmental resources in fossil energy, agricultural land, minerals and renewable alternatives. The concept of sociogenesis of climate change analyses the combination of these two dimensions of inequality to account for the present political impasse, national and international. A dominant feature of a nation’s wealth has historically been based on the unrestricted exploitation of its own environmental resources, or those that it commands through colonisation or trade. This has resulted in the US now producing more than double the CO₂eq per capita than China, or Germany consuming four times more coal per capita than India. The COP26 impasse on coal and fossil fuels arose in part from China’s and India’s unwillingness to strand its environmental assets without alternative pathways to equivalent national wealth, while wealthier nations continue to excessively exploit theirs. A sociogenic analysis of wealth and environmental resource inequalities signals the need for a radical change in the political processes required to mitigate the climate emergency.

Key messages

  • The historical development of wealth inequalities between nations is dynamically related to the generation of climate change, national inequalities whose climate effects are then amplified by the extremes of inequality within those societies.

  • The concept of the sociogenesis of climate change captures the different historical trajectories of political economies consequent upon the exploitation of their distinctive resource environments in fossil energy and land.

  • The climate emergency of limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires a fundamental restriction of the sovereign rights of nations to exploit their territorial resource environments. The current United Nations political process is ‘mis-fit for purpose’ because of its reliance on National Determined Contributions, which is ill-equipped to address either inequalities between nations or sovereign rights over national territorial resources.

As a consequence of persistent political failures, national and international, to adequately address the challenge of restricting global warming to a maximum of 1.5°C, climate change has become a climate emergency. The limitations and prevarications of COP26 have only reinforced the natural scientific view both of the extreme urgency and of the limitations of national commitments made in Glasgow, which if they stand, point to a catastrophic global warming of up to 2.4°C (Climate Action Tracker, 2021; UNEP, 2021c). This paper offers an analysis both of the dynamics generating climate change and of the manifest obstacles to its mitigation, political, economic and social. At the core of this analysis lies the ways in which another crisis – the wealth inequality crisis – is dynamically linked to how different societies, and inequalities within them, generate the greenhouse gases (GHG) at hugely different levels. The richest people within the richest countries are the pacemakers of climate change but in ways that call for critical examination, particularly in relation to a different dimension of inequality, namely, the inequalities of environmental resources over which these societies have control.

The paper develops this argument in the following way. First, it proposes a political necessity of a social science perspective to complement the dominant, and essential, natural science concept of anthropogenic climate change. Second, it develops a neo-Polanyian concept of sociogenic climate change, arguing that climate change requires a paradigm shift in disciplinarities and conceptual framings of the relation between societies and nature. Third, it analyses schematically the major historical trajectories of economic development from the 18th century in which increasing inequalities between and within nations are at the same time the primary drivers of climate change. Fourth, having characterised these trajectories in terms of a dominant pattern of exploitation of those environmental resources over which a nation has control, the paper elaborates on how extreme national inequalities of wealth interplay with inequalities over environmental resources. Fifth, COP26 and more broadly the UN processes of addressing climate change from Kyoto to Glasgow are seen to be fundamentally flawed as a result of their failure to break with the national sovereignty over environmental resources at the root of the sociogenesis of climate change. And so finally, the conclusion drawn from this analysis suggests a radical shift in political processes and institutions necessary to directly address the inequalities of wealth and environmental resources that continue to drive climate change.

Anthropogenesis and sociogenesis

Successive reports from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have established a natural science consensus across the globe on the critical challenge resulting from anthropogenic climate change. There is a double significance to the huge achievement enshrined in these reports. First, there is the power of conviction that arises from such a broad natural science consensus, and its use of the concept of anthropogenesis. Second, the IPCC reports require political unanimity from governments to sign off the reports for publication. In that sense, they become a politically endorsed platform for the strategic UN attempts, through the successive Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings, to achieve a further consensus on the necessary steps to be taken by nation states to mitigate climate change. Enormous political weight is thus accorded to the natural science concept of anthropogenesis, with a risk that it can be politically ‘weaponised’ to the advantage of some nations over others.

The central feature of this natural science concept of anthropogenesis is that it concerns the aggregate impacts of human activity, whether from the burning of fossil fuels or land use and land-use change. From the perspective of the planet as a physical system, it does not matter whether a hundred tonnes of CO₂ equivalent are produced by one person or by a hundred producing one tonne each. Equally, it does not matter whether methane emission from enteric fermentation is generated by 200,000 cattle in Brazil or 200,000 cattle in Australia. Nor does it matter if a flight of a certain type of plane is between New York and London, or between Paris and Buenos Aires. The aggregate impacts are all that matter, and for climate change considered as a physical process, indeed it does not matter. All that matters is how the aggregate impacts of each individual nation sum up to the overall aggregate of human activity in general. A graphic representation of just this aggregate is typical of many IPCC reports, where global human activity is a bubble which then generates a total sum of CO₂eq, with impacts on sea temperatures, glacier melts, sea level rises, droughts, extreme weather events, biodiversity loss and so on in a ‘climate change cause-effect chain’ (IPCC, 2021: 106, Figure TS.4). Notably, this Sixth Assessment Report is entitled Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, dealing with anthropogenic consequences of aggregate GHG emissions. The social science contributions to the IPCC largely focus on the social consequences of climate change, dealing with effects on food production, mitigation, disease, and variations on different populations and societies across the world, exemplified by the most recent IPCC Report on impacts, adaptability and vulnerability (IPCC, 2022).

However, given the political dimension to this natural science concept of anthropogenic climate change, the unit of analysis is the nation state while maintaining the principle of aggregate impact. So, nations are then ranked in terms of their aggregate impact, no matter whether their population is 300,000 or 1.3 billion, no matter whether they are developed or developing in terms of wealth. The consequence is the typical graph presented by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) in Figure 1.

There are two features of this graph of CO₂eq emissions from extracted fossil fuels. First, they are ranked from aggregate emissions from each nation state. Second, they point to huge national differences in the primary sources of fossil energy. So China is by far the biggest producer of CO₂eq from coal (the most GHG generating fossil energy), while the US is the largest global producer of CO₂eq from both oil and gas. A similar ranking by national aggregate methane emissions again places China at the top, notably combining all emissions from rice, coal, cattle, coal mining, oil and gas, and landfill, but again with huge variations between countries on the composition of these sources (UNEP, 2021b: 22, Figure 2.6).

Figure 1 presents a graph of aggregate carbon emissions from fossil energy, ranking 25 leading nations and illustrating their varied reliance on coal, gas, and oil.
Figure 1:

National aggregate CO2 emissions from fossil energy, top 25 countries

Citation: Global Social Challenges Journal 1, 1; 10.1332/MEPZ5639

Source: UNEP, 2021a: 36 Figure 4.1.Note: countries in bold and asterisked are discussed in the UNEP report (UNEP, 2021a: 34–52).

Taking nation states and ranking them in terms of total CO₂eq is by no means only a feature of United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) reports. The 11,258 scientists from 153 countries who first announced that the climate crisis had become the climate emergency also ranked nations by aggregate GHG emissions, with China topping the list, followed by the US, with India fourth (Ripple et al, 2019: Table S1). However, while ranking the top 25 GHG emitters, they usefully supply data both on per capita CO₂eq and GDP. Re-ranking the nations in terms of per capita GHG results in China dropping to 15th and India to 24th out of 25. Moreover, the average US citizen emits 2.28 times more CO₂eq than the average Chinese, and 8.75 times that of an average Indian citizen. Even more striking is that the average Indian citizen emits only 1.8 tonnes of CO₂eq per annum, which is below the global average per capita required to meet the target of keeping climate atmospheric warming under 1.5°C.

Moreover, there is a strong correlation between GDP and CO₂ emissions per capita: the average US citizen has a GDP of $62,736 per annum compared with a Chinese citizen with $9,400, or $2,016 for an Indian citizen. But there is another striking feature of the relationship between GDP and CO₂ per capita: those countries whose wealth significantly derives from oil or coal have a much higher ratio of CO₂ to GDP, so setting Singapore as a city-state aside as number 1 ranking for both GDP and CO₂, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Australia are ranked 2, 3 and 4 for per capita CO₂, followed by the US (Ripple et al, 2019: Table S1; Harvey, 2021: 162, Figure 6.1). As with Figure 1, therefore, inequalities of wealth as measured by GDP are combined with inequalities in the key environmental energy resources of oil and coal. And they point to a crucial but missing aspect that arises from treating national aggregate GHG emissions: trade. Whether for Middle East oil or Australian coal, the majority of their energy is exported while the GHG impact signature of the oil or coal extraction process remains at home. And, for manufactured goods, trade redistributes the responsibilities for climate change with embodied GHG transferred from one nation to another. Trade, whether in energy, steel or food, is a consequence of the unequal distribution of environmental resources.

These are but hints at the significance of these two dimensions of inequalities. Natural scientists, concerned only with aggregate impacts of all human activity, set aside what lies behind these inequalities. They measure physical properties of the Earth as a physical system – and rightly so. For the social scientist, the who, the how, the why and the when involved in these inequalities are centre stage of any analysis. For the natural science perspective, there is nothing wrong with the concept of anthropogenesis in terms of aggregate impacts: it is a necessary measure of the physical aspects of a physical system. It becomes problematic if it is politically weaponised by these national rankings of aggregate impacts that ignore the two dimensions of inequality. That is what happened in COP26, with the US largely exonerated, and fingers pointed at China and India, and others with much lower per capita emissions. So before turning to the parallel crisis of inequality, we need a social scientific complement to anthropogenesis: the sociogenesis of climate change.

Climate change prompts a paradigm shift for the social sciences and its current disciplinarities. Across a broad spectrum of perspectives, nature is either entirely absented from view or construed as an externality whether to the economy, society or polity. To be sure, some perspective and disciplinary shifts have occurred over recent decades, for example with ecological economics, World Systems Theory and the greening of Marxism, but it is beyond the scope of this paper to review them here. Hurricanes might be portrayed as forces of nature capable of wreaking massive loss of life and economic damage. But if hurricanes are induced by human activity, no longer purely external forces of nature, then, instead of nature being treated as external to societies, societies must be seen as internal to nature and the resource environments in which they are sited. There are social, cultural, economic and political interactions from within the environments they inhabit. Nature as external to society must be radically turned around into society internal to nature.

But not nature in general, or nature in the abstract. The particular concept of sociogenesis presented here is a development from Karl Polanyi’s later works of economic anthropology and his Columbia lectures (Polanyi, 1957, 2014; Harvey, 2007; 2020). In a comparative and historical anthropological perspective, Polanyi explored how economies were instituted in social, political and cultural space, and transforming across time, but not in environmental space. If his analysis repudiated general abstract models of the economy, including Marxist ones of capitalism, to affirm radical societal and historical variation, he was therefore missing a further, equally radical source of temporal and comparative variation, namely, how socio-economies are instituted in, and interacting with, particular and varied resource environments (Figure 2). As a response to climate change, the concept of sociogenesis grasps this source of variation in its analysis of different historical trajectories, and the importance of such differences in accounting for climate change.

Societal resource environments refer to those spaces over which a society has political and economic power to exploit. Over recent centuries, the territory of a nation state and the varied resources of fossil energy, minerals and agricultural quality land has been a critical aspect of the economic developments driving climate change. From the 16th century, however, national territorial environmental resources have been vastly extended by colonisation, especially of the New World, but also of South East Asia. As we shall see, colonisation has been a necessary counterpart to industrial revolution. Finally, the resources that can be commanded through the asymmetric power of exchange between the relatively developed North and relatively underdeveloped South complete the environmental resources spaces of the nation state. Differences in societal environmental resources that result in inequalities of wealth between nations then become critical for the understanding of the sociogenic dynamics of climate change. In this respect, the historical and comparative analysis of the sociogenesis of climate change has parallels with postcolonial approaches which escape from narrow nationalist accounts of the conditioning of the present by the past (for example, Bhambra, 2022).

Drawing an analogy between climate change and wealth inequalities, Savage points to how, with respect to both, ‘the weight of past historical and social forces … constrains our futures’ (Savage, 2021: 22). The connection between past and present wealth inequalities and climate-changing dynamics, however, goes beyond one of analogy. The division between the long-developed and developing countries is more than the historical legacy of past emissions. Rather, on the basis of prior development, developed countries currently generate much higher levels of per capita emissions than developing ones, with, as we have seen, the US in the leading pack. The failures of COP26, notably to agree to meet the minimum annual target of $100 billion funding from relatively developed to developing economies necessary to assist in green transitions, bear the stamp of that division (Stern, 2021). The refusal of India or China to commit to the pact on coal, given their per capita use of fossil energy is respectively a tenth and a third that of the US (IEA, 2021) is the political and economic converse of the US’s own refusal, reflecting its coal lobby and protection of its leading economic position. Yet, the crisis of extreme wealth inequalities within and between nations and the crisis of climate change have largely been treated by separate, non-intercommunicating, literatures.

Piketty has performed the invaluable service of analysing the development of levels of inequality within national societies unparalleled since the early 20th century (2018; 2020). For him, inequality of these extremes constitutes a crisis insofar as it is driven by ‘powerful forces of divergence which are potentially threatening to democratic societies and to the values of social justice’ (2018: 571). His analysis of intra-societal inequalities, especially of developed economies, is based on showing how the returns on past capital assets exceed those of newly produced wealth, the rate of interest on capital being regularly a multiple of the rate of growth. For him this has resulted in a society of rentiers, or even more brutally, one in which ‘the past devours the future’ (2018: 571). Stiglitz provides a different analysis of extreme inequalities, based on the market distortions of excessive monopolisation (Microsoft, Amazon) and asymmetries of information between the economically powerful and the powerless. For him too, this constitutes a crisis of inequality, insofar as it has led to a corruption of the democratic electoral process, and the consequential turn to deregulation of markets, reduction of progressive taxation, and a stalling of educational expansion (Stiglitz, 2012).

However important these analyses of the inequality crisis may be, they both exhibit two major limitations. It is striking – although as already suggested not exceptionally so for economists – how their accounts of market wealth inequalities are disembedded from variations and inequalities of national natural resource environments. Indeed, nature does not appear in their wealth of nations. Second, although reference is made to the inequalities between nations, their analytical frameworks do not purport to, and cannot claim to, account for the great divergence of wealth between nations. Piketty acknowledges in passing that from the 18th century – for some countries – the rate of growth accelerated by a factor of three with the emergence of industrial capitalism. But, even in his later work where he stresses the importance of an ideology of the sanctity of private property ownership which he calls proprietarianism, no analysis is offered as to why and how such an ideology emerged in Europe and the US, rather than China, India or, until the late-19th century, Japan. For Stiglitz, the exceptionalism of inequalities within the US, and to a lesser extent the UK, again provides no account of how the US became the wealthiest nation in the world. Climate change presents a challenge to both these limitations, given the fact that the richest deciles within the richest nations generate by far the highest per capita emissions of GHG. So, a sociogenic analysis of climate change requires that we address both these limitations, and in an integrated way. It can, for example, be no coincidence that the US is self-sufficient to a very high degree in fossil energy resources and in high-quality agricultural land, with a continental scale of other diverse resource environmental assets.

In the broadest of terms, for a sociogenic analysis of climate change the connections need to be forged between the generation of wealth and exploitation of resource environments on the one hand, and between wealth creation and wealth distribution within national societies, on the other. As a first step in this analysis, therefore, a highly schematic account of ‘the great divergence’ in wealth between countries will be presented through the lens of climate change. Two historical trajectories will be contrasted for the significance of different resource environments as a source both of societal variation, and distinctive climate change generation: the British Industrial Revolution and the US expansion of settler colonialism in the first half of the 19th century. They have been chosen for their illustration of two principal drivers of climate change: the use of fossil energy and land-use change. In so doing, the analysis emphasises how these two drivers are themselves connected. In that respect, it complements two natural science perspectives on climate change: the Long View, which emphasises how land-use change, animal and plant hybridisation and domestication, initiated anthropogenic climate change from 3000 bce onwards (Ruddiman, 2010; 2018; Fuller et al, 2011); and the Short View, which emphasises the very rapid acceleration of anthropogenic climate change from the burning of fossil fuels, on which there is consensus (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000; Crutzen, 2002; Zalasiewicz et al, 2017).

Creating national wealth and climate change inequalities

The creation of the wealth division between the developed North and an undeveloped South and East was led by the British Industrial Revolution, distinctive and dominant also in Europe until at least the latter part of the 19th century. Before then, there had been relative wealth equality between European nations, China, India and Japan, even many African societies. ‘Britain was first because Britain had coal – a fact of nature, not an artefact of history’ (Allen, 2009: 81).

The exploitation of its resource environment of coal, coal of the right kind for industrial uses, in the right place, and hence also for the right price, was a key to the distinctive historical trajectory of its Industrial Revolution (Allen, 2009). Critically, coal use for domestic heating purposes as well as iron forging, preceded the celebrated take-off of industrialisation, but already placed Britain in a distinctive position at the forefront of the switch from organic energy (wood, charcoal, peat) to inorganic energy (Wrigley, 2000). The use of coal for domestic heating rose from 2 million tonnes in 1700 to 15 million in 1800. That was equivalent to 15 million hectares of woodland when there were only 1.5 million hectares of available land. In part this expansion of coal consumption was driven by the rebuilding and expansion of London for it to become the largest city in Europe, while England as a whole accounted for 70 per cent of all European urban expansion during this period. In turn, London had become the principal entrepôt of its primary export, woollen textiles. This already prefigured the critical connection between industrialisation and land-use change, both significant for sociogenic climate change. Growth in domestic coal consumption, the proto-industrialisation of woollen textile production, a doubling of the number of sheep over the 18th century occupying prime agricultural land, already made an interdependent connection between methane-producing livestock, land use and the CO₂ emissions from fossil energy consumption. Perhaps more significantly, woollen textiles established a springboard for the subsequent and celebrated premier industry of the Industrial Revolution: the steam-powered cotton textile industry. Moreover, the woollen textile industry itself did not disappear but itself flourished into full-blown industrialised and steam-powered production by the mid-19th century (Hudson, 2002; 2008). It remained a significant component of national wealth creation and exemplifies a significant aspect of interactions between economy and natural resource environments. The hybridisation of sheep with new qualities of wool, especially later for worsteds, created new markets through quality distinction. Cotton textiles did not displace wool but added a totally new range of quality distinct markets, also as a consequence of the quality transformations of the natural qualities, in this case of the cotton boll. Wealth creation is dynamically linked to market creation through quality transformations and differentiations of natural qualities, whether of coal, wool or cotton.

Some accounts of the British Industrial Revolution, both natural and social scientific, one-sidedly, even exclusively, attribute climate change to the consumption of coal in the factory systems that developed to produce cotton textiles (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000; Malm, 2016). James Watt, as inventor of the coal-fired steam engine, is the totemic figure for the switch from water-powered machinery to climate change–inducing fossil energy motive power and, unquestionably, both for wealth creation of industrial capitalists and for climate change, it was of historical significance. Between 1800 and 1850 the volume of cotton textile manufacture increased ten times (Beckert, 2015), driving the increase in coal consumption from 11 million to 65 million tons. The combined consumption of coal of the three next biggest textile producers, Belgium, France and Germany, was less than a third of that total, as was their combined textile production. In that sense alone, Britain was demonstrably the frontrunner for both national wealth creation and sociogenic climate change.

Yet, that is only part of the story. As Pomeranz argued (2000), industrialisation in the European metropolises was interdependent with the expansion of their resource environments through colonisation and exploitation of the New World. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the British cotton textile industry. Riello calculated that in 1850 to produce the woollen textiles equivalent to the cotton textiles then manufactured would have required 167 million sheep, six times more than the actual national flock, and more than double the whole of Britain’s agricultural land (Riello, 2013: 240, Table 11.1). As captured in Figure 2, this involved importing cotton from ‘ghost acres’ in the New World, both in colonies and through trade, a reconfiguration of the British resource environment: ghost in the sense of being subsumed in the British economy, but not appearing as its national territory. The stellar growth of the British cotton industry drove land conversion and slave plantation production in the New World and, from 1800, overwhelmingly in the American Deep South (Harvey, 2019).

The importation of cotton from the US following the Revolutionary War grew to coincide with the major technological innovations of textile production (Arkwright, Crompton). By 1815, 50 per cent of cotton came from the Deep South, increasing to an astonishing 88 per cent by the time of the American Civil War, 30 years after Britain had emancipated its own slaves. By then 70 per cent of the American cotton crop was purchased by Britain (Bailey, 1994). It is difficult to understate the command that Britain exercised over this new resource environment, with its merchant banks advancing credit to plantation owners for the purchase of the enslaved, the acquisition of land, and annual advances on their crop (Boodry, 2014). By 1860, 6.3 million ‘ghost’ hectares were dedicated to cotton for British industry.

From a sociogenesis of climate change perspective, two features need especial emphasis. First, industrialisation in the metropolis was entirely dependent on land conversion and extensification, with its own considerable GHG impacts. In the Long View of anthropogenic climate change (Ruddiman, 2013; 2018), land conversion, deforestation and agricultural expansion had preceded the industrial revolution acceleration over millennia, as also in England. But from the 18th century, it was the combination of fossil energy use to power the textile mills and intensified agriculture in newly converted land that drove climate change, not one independently of the other. Second, the land acquired was not virgin. Plantation slavery displaced subsistence and hunter-gatherer Native American Indian societies with intensified market-driven agricultures through successive genocides and ethnic cleansings (Madley, 2015; Anderson, 2016). The expansion of settler colonialism in the US (Hixson, 2013) represents a fusion of dynamics of the Long View and the Short View of climate change: an unprecedentedly rapid agricultural land conversion on a continental scale linked to the ever-accelerating consumption of fossil fuel for industrial production from agricultural raw materials. The famous natural scientific graphs of CO₂ emissions acceleration from the late 18th century log the anthropogenic impact of this sociogenic double-sided dynamic.

Turning to the US trajectory in the pre-Civil War 19th century, land agglomeration and agricultural conversion presents a contrasting sociogenic dynamic of climate change. From the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 (Kastor, 2008; Hammond, 2012) to the integration of Texas as a slave state in 1845 (Anderson, 2019) and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, by means of successive wars with Mexico, and genocides and ethnic cleansing of Native American peoples, settler colonisation of vast tracts of land transformed the resource environment of the US by conquest. For the development of its national wealth, the US with its land abundance did not need ‘ghost acres’. Texas provides a pivoting link both to the British Industrial Revolution as a cotton-supplying slave state, and to the US pathway to becoming the biggest climate-changing nation of the 20th century. Cattle had already been an invasive species in the Americas before their descendants, the Texas longhorns, became a major aspect of the nascent economy. Hundreds of thousands of head of cattle fed the Californian gold rush in the decade following 1848, before many millions annually created a continuous flow of beef through the cattle trails and railroads to the stockyards of Chicago. By the 1870s, chilled beef was being transported in refrigerated railway wagons to East Coast America, and even globally. Major global companies, such as Armour and Swift, emerged as meat packers and processors (Cronon, 1991). A full-scale capitalist industry of cattle rearing and meat production replaced the naturally occurring bison hunted by and sustaining Native Americans. If methane is a short-lived rather than cumulative GHG, nonetheless, it was the development of the continuous flow that makes it a significant and distinctively American sociogenic climate-changing dimension. And perhaps yet more significant is that it promoted a consumption culture that today puts the US as the leading meat-eating population in the world with 120 kilos per capita per year (Gerber et al, 2013).

Texas provides a further twist that heralded America’s future dominant economic power. Oil was discovered in Melrose in 1866, leading to the first major oilfield being opened in Corsicana in 1894.

Following the development of national wealth through steam power and agricultural extensification and intensification, the next two waves of climate-change acceleration involved the electrification and motorisation of societies. Again, there were huge societal variations depending on the societal resource environments and spatial characteristics. Pursuing the American pathway to becoming both the wealthiest and the premier climate-changing nation, two illustrative examples can be picked out for these two waves. The formation of electric power grids was a revolutionary change both in the generation of energy and its consumption (Hughes, 1983). Grids, regional and national, linked industrial production to domestic households, and household to household. Human domestic labour and lifestyles, to varying extents, were transformed by vacuum cleaners, cookers, refrigerators, wirelesses, irons, toasters – and later, of course, televisions and computers.

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) development of electrification from 1933, the flagship of Roosevelt’s New Deal, perfectly illustrates the societal interaction with a resource environment (Kline and Moretti, 2014). It was a politically driven project, and initially a public good generation of electricity through a succession of dams on the Tennessee River providing hydropower, on the grounds that rivers belonged to the people, and could not be privately owned. The New Deal politics were as much about connecting the isolated rural poor as providing industrial energy to pull the US out of the Great Depression (O’Neill, 2002). Yet hydropower was a finite resource, and the TVA subsequently exploited the neighbouring coalfields of the Appalachian Mountains to become the largest single coal consumer in the world by 1950. By 1975 coal was producing five times more kilowatts than hydropower (McCraw, 1976). In so doing, it was responding to increasing domestic demand, but more significantly demand first for aluminium smelting for military planes, and second, for uranium processing required for the establishment of a TVA nuclear power station at Sequoyah. In short, the TVA electrification became multimodal, military power-projecting, industrial and domestic household wealth-producing – and climate changing. As such, the TVA represented an infrastructure by which, to take but two examples, Americans have refrigerators on average double the size of European or Japanese, and air-conditioning of houses and workplaces that consumes nearly half of the total global air-conditioning energy requirements (IEA, 2018: Table 1.1). Racing to keep cool against global warming. As Figure 3 illustrates, America developed and then consolidated its lead as the most intensively electrified society in the world. Finally, Democrat Senator Manchin representing the West Virginia Appalachians coal interest, has been climate change mitigation blocking, obstructing President Biden’s attempt to finance transitions to green energy in 2021 to date.

This diagram illustrates the concept of societies embedded in the different resource environments they command, whether in terms of national territory, colonisation or trade.
Figure 2:

Instituting societies in environmental space

Citation: Global Social Challenges Journal 1, 1; 10.1332/MEPZ5639

A graph demonstrates inequalities between major nations in their per capita consumption of electricity from 1970 to 2020, showing the USA to lead by a large margin throughout this period.
Figure 3:

The evolution of national inequalities in societal electrification

Citation: Global Social Challenges Journal 1, 1; 10.1332/MEPZ5639

Source: IEA Energy Atlas, http://energyatlas.iea.org/#!/tellmap/1378539487

Turning to the motorisation of societies, again the US exhibits a distinctive pattern, shaped by its resource environment and spatial characteristics. Here too an example of a politically driven public investment will serve to illustrate the sociogenic dynamics of climate change. Al Gore’s father passed the Federal Aid Highway Act through Senate for the financing of one of the historically largest engineering projects undertaken by humankind: the Interstate Highway System, with 41,000 miles of new major roadways. The funding system was quite unique. Rejecting privatisation and tolling, a federal tax on fuel and tyres was hypothecated to finance road building: the more cars drove, the more roads built, the more cars drove (Lewis, 1997). Again, for President Eisenhower there were multiple objectives: connecting isolated rural communities to the road network system, accelerating car and heavy goods vehicle traffic and, last but not least, providing the necessary infrastructure to move military personnel and materiel rapidly across the continent (McNichol, 2006). The scale and intensity of its road network is unparalleled in the world. Before the Second World War and supporting the emergence of mass car manufacture pioneered by Ford, vehicles were fuelled almost exclusively from American oil. By the 1970s production had doubled, but America was becoming increasingly dependent on Saudi Arabian and Persian Gulf oil – dictating the geopolitics of the region. But since the emergence of shale oil and fracking, America has once more become virtually self-sufficient from its own resource environment for oil, and consumption has jumped from 6.5 billion barrels per day in 1950 to 20 billion in 2020. Some 65 per cent of its total oil production fuels passenger cars, rising to 85 per cent with commercial vehicles, leaving only 9 per cent for US domestic and international flights (EIA, 2020). The US has the highest density of car ownership in the world, with 816 per 1,000 people, compared with 473 in the United Kingdom, the high 500s in Japan, Germany and France, and a mere 214 in China.1 Americans burn four to five times more petrol on average than the average European. In 2017, their cars were 30 per cent heavier than the weightiest in Europe in Germany, and a massive 55 per cent heavier than average cars in Japan (IEA, 2019).

Taking these snapshots of the connection between the US becoming, in GDP terms, the wealthiest major economy in the world and the most intensively climate changing, it shows how Americans became the world’s voracious meat eaters, weightiest car drivers, owners of the largest refrigerators and coolest by means of air conditioners – in short energy consumers in a league of their own (along with Canada). A useful way of capturing the inequalities in wealth and resources between nations is by the measure of Total Energy Supply (TES) per capita, where TES is defined as total commercial energy production plus imports minus exports (IEA, 2021). The US has 2.8 times more energy per capita than China, and a massive 9.8 times energy per capita than India.

The measure is a complex one, however, depending on both national resource environments in energy, but also relative size of national manufacturing industries, and most importantly imported energy through trade. The UK, partly as a consequence of the decline in manufacturing and rise of the tertiary economy, has a relatively low TES per capita, with only marginally more than China. This is in part a consequence of the precipitous decline of its energy-intensive steel industry by over 50 per cent since 1990. It is now in a negative trade balance for steel, importing energy expended and allocated elsewhere, notably from Germany that produces 25 per cent of European Union steel (Hutton, 2021). In 1967, the UK was the fifth largest steel producer in the world producing 70 per cent more steel than China, but now in 2021 just 0.7 per cent of that nation’s production. China has become the dominant producer, 11 times more steel than even the US (World Steel Association, 2021). But whether in steel or in finished manufactured goods, much of the related energy is exported across the world, with importers acquiring goods without the associated CO₂eq additions to their carbon budgets.

The inequality crisis within nations and unequal climate change responsibilities

The previous section explored the sociogenic dynamics of national wealth inequalities and intensity of climate-changing energy use and land-use change. From the Great Divergence that saw the UK become the dominant climate-change generator in the 19th century, through the successive waves of electrification and motorisation that led to the US becoming the dominant climate-change generator, it addressed the emergence of national inequalities in per capita wealth and per capita GHG emissions. These inequalities are both legacies of past economic development and the expression of present economic power. The inequality crisis addresses a different question, one that concerns the distribution of that nationally acquired wealth within any given society. It is a question of how in turn wealth is unequally distributed, and how then the richest within the richest economies are responsible for climate change (Oxfam, 2015; 2021).

Although due attention has been accorded to billionaires and the top 1 per cent, here the top decile in comparison with lower deciles will be the main focus, if only because of their larger numbers, hence greatest sociogenic generative impacts. Piketty has provided powerful evidence of the growth in the share of national income appropriated by the top decile, and how that share varies between countries. Comparing the US, Britain, Germany, France and Sweden, he graphically demonstrated how, in all cases, the share of national income fell from a high between 47 per cent and 41 per cent (Britain at the top) in 1900 to a low of between 34 per cent and 26 per cent (Sweden at the bottom) in 1970, only to rise again to peaks above 47 per cent (US at the top) in 2010. At the later date, only the US and the UK saw the top decile appropriating above 40 per cent of national income. But in all other cases, the unequal share of the top 10 per cent has been rising (Piketty, 2018: 322, Figure 9.7). The inequalities of personal wealth are more extreme in terms of capital ownership (including notably inherited wealth) than income from earnings (Piketty, 2018: Figures 7.1–7.3). In Capital and Ideology (Piketty, 2020) Piketty emphasises the role of political ideology in explaining the levels of intra-societal inequalities of wealth, in terms of laws for labour markets, company regulations, trades union power, education and skills training, among many other ‘ideological’ aspects. Taxation regimes, notably taxes on capital and inheritance, as well as on income, are particularly significant. Thus, in strict historical parallel with the growth of the top deciles share of national income post-1970, there was a dramatic reduction in top marginal rates of taxation for the highest incomes, again with the most extreme examples from the US and the UK, followed to a lesser extent by France and Germany (Piketty, 2020: 32, Figure 1.7).2 For present purposes, a key consequence of the increasing share of national income of the top decile, and the declining share of taxation on that income, is that the top decile has increased spending power, both in its own right but also in relation to a declining share of national income devoted to public sector goods and services.

The inequality crisis meets the climate change crisis when that increased spending power translates into consumption that generates GHG. In one sense, and at first glance, there is a straightforward relationship between more spending power and more GHG emissions. The stark opposite side of that relationship has only too clearly been revealed with the impact of the 2021–22 steep increase in gas and electricity prices. The bottom decile earners, even in rich countries like the UK, have been faced with having to reduce energy consumption by either not cooking or not heating their homes as much, so reducing their CO₂ emissions.

The Oxfam report (2015) provided data on the top decile CO₂eq emissions in OECD countries, later updating the evidence to demonstrate that even if COP26 commitments to reduce emissions were met, the top decile of income would still be generating ten times more than is necessary to meet the requirement to limit global warming to 1.5°C (Oxfam, 2021). At the same time, the global bottom 50 per cent of income earners have emissions that remain below the necessary global average of per capita emissions that would be needed to meet that target, of 2.2 tonnes of CO₂eq per annum, due to relative food and energy poverty highlighted in the previous section. Given the growth of income inequalities and disproportionate rises of incomes of the top decile already noted, unsurprisingly the top US decile consumption produced an average of 50 tonnes of CO₂eq per annum, twice the level of the next highest and the second most unequal, the UK, at 24 tonnes of CO₂eq. In the perspective of the inequality crisis, the difference between these two most unequal societies is an effect of the income threshold for the US top decile at $155,105 per annum being more than double that of the UK income threshold for the top decile at the equivalent of $71,000 per annum. That difference in both income and CO₂eq emissions is, sociogenically, a consequence of combination of relative national wealth and intra-societal distributional policies within each country. Similarly, the Oxfam data maps closely onto the Piketty analysis of national income inequalities with the top deciles of both Germany and France having lower shares and consequently lower CO₂eq emissions at 14 tonnes and 13 tonnes respectively. In spite of the notable rise of the Chinese middle class over recent decades (Milanovic, 2016), the purchasing power of their top decile compares with the bottom 40 per cent decile of Europeans as, consequently, does their CO₂eq emissions at below 5 tonnes per annum. Reflecting the legacy and continuing wealth division arising from the Great Divergence, 40 per cent of the world’s top emitters thus reside in North America, responsible for 45 per cent of global emissions. India, by contrast, has 36 per cent of the world’s lowest emitters, responsible for just 13 per cent of global emissions (Chancel and Piketty, 2015), mirroring the stark contrast in per capita energy consumption highlighted in the previous section.

Finally, when analysing the consumption of the top deciles in the world that accounts for their high CO₂ emissions, a survey of the top deciles in 86 countries showed that they consumed 187 times more vehicle fuel and 13 times more electricity than the bottom 10 per cent (Oswald et al, 2020). A similar pattern was found in the US where vehicle fuel and household energy dominated the carbon footprint from consumer expenditure even in the top decile, in spite of the much wider range of their consumption purchases of leisure, information, and luxury travel (Ummel, 2014). The wealthy suburban elite, in larger houses with more space, and distinctive lifestyles, are still the greatest consumers of fossil energy, a pattern similarly manifest in the UK (Druckman and Jackson, 2009).

The United Nations political process: misfit for purpose

In October 2021, the United Nations Environmental Programme issued a sombre assessment of the national conditional and unconditional commitments to achieve a limit to 1.5°C (the National Determined Contributions, NDCs). They estimated, with a 66 per cent probability, that if fully implemented global warming would be in the range 2.5°–2.7°C. If, in addition, all net-zero pledges contained in the several NDC agreements were implemented the range was only reduced to between 1.9°C and 2.1°C. In short, catastrophic levels of warming for all species, including humans (UNEP, 2021a; 2021c: 4). The world’s top coal consumers, China, India and the US, representing 72 per cent of coal-fired power emissions declined to sign the weakened coal agreement, as did Australia, the world’s largest coal exporter. The Methane Pact was not signed by the world’s largest emitters, Russia, China, India and Brazil. Finally, the Deforestation Pledge, although signed by 141 countries, only committed ‘to working collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030’. It notably evades the immediate and urgent issue of stopping the deforestation of the Amazon at a time when, in the last three years under the encouragement of President Bolsonaro, 30,000 square kilometres have been destroyed at an accelerating rate. In addition there was one key fossil energy that attracted no pledges: oil.

Although there has been much finger-pointing at the non-signers, there has been a much more significant underlying failure of the UN political process. The fundamental limitations concern the inequalities of both wealth and environmental resources highlighted in this article, the key sociogenic dimension of international trade, and the need to circumscribe the national sovereign rights to exploit territorial resources. These three limitations are ultimately linked to what has been the paradigm character of national economic growth, namely unrestricted rights to develop national environmental resources.

In September 2021, a revised model was published for the level of fossil energy (oil, methane, coal) that would have to remain unexploited in order to reach the 1.5°C global warming target (Welsby, 2021). By 2050, globally 58 per cent of currently known commercial oil reserves and 89 per cent of currently known commercial coal reserves would have to remain underground. But these reserves are unequally distributed between nations and, more significantly, nations in different stages of development and wealth, as discussed earlier. So, China and India would have to lock up 76 per cent of their coal reserves, Russia 97 per cent, Australia 95 per cent and the US 97 per cent. Likewise, with oil, Canada would have 83 per cent of their assets stranded, the US 31 per cent, the Middle East 62 per cent and Central and South America, 73 per cent. The modelling, of course, does not refer to the epochs of previous extraction that have contributed to the inequalities of wealth already discussed. As noted previously, India has a fraction of the energy supply per capita of developed countries, and Germany currently burns four times more coal per capita than it does (Tongia et al, 2020). But it is noteworthy that projections of the production gap between what is required to meet the 1.5°C limit on warming and the planned and projected production of oil and gas in the US is for significant increases in production through to 2030, indeed almost a doubling in both cases (UNEP, 2021a). The model of unextractable reserves suggests some domestic policies for locking down environmental resources, but also calls for an international non-proliferation treaty on fossil fuels (Welsby, 2021: 233). To achieve such a treaty through the auspices of the UNFCCC, however, would entail circumscribing national rights to exploit their own environment resource assets, a limit on national sovereignty albeit by consensus. Of course, when considering assets that need to be stranded, it is equally important to include environmentally critical land resources and forests. President Bolsonaro’s answer to such a proposition was brutally simple: ‘The Amazon is ours, not yours’, he said (Financial Times, 2019). The underlying inequalities of nations in their current wealth and consumption of such environmental resources must be recognised when addressing the imperative to strand national environmental assets, with the aim of creating a common planetary good, a locked down ‘commons’. It is the ‘wickedest of problems’ (Coen et al, 2020). Stranding assets means entirely different things to more or less relatively wealthy nations, with an implied freezing of current inequalities.

Yet, in many ways the UN political process for mitigating has gone in a reverse direction, enshrining national sovereign rights over territorial resources. Following the success in dealing with the hole in the ozone layer, in 1997 the Kyoto Protocol set legally mandatory targets for carbon reduction, a supranational regulation of national economic activity. Although there were provisions for enforcement, they were ineffective, and the Protocol was further undermined by the exclusion of major countries (China, India and Brazil, for example). Canada pulled out of the Protocol, and eventually the US failed to ratify it. After the failure to achieve any significant agreements at the 2009 COP15 meeting in Copenhagen, COP21 in Paris (in 2015) abandoned the ‘top-down’ approach, leading to the ‘bottom-up’ approach in which each nation independently determined their own contributions to climate mitigation through their submission of NDCs. These were then ratified by the Paris Agreement under international treaty and signed by 196 countries. Given the failure of Copenhagen, at the time, some considered it to be ‘the most important treaty to be reached by the global community’ (Held and Roger, 2018).

By COP26, the weaknesses of the NDC approach had been fully exposed, not least by the production gaps already discussed but, more importantly, because it impedes any possibility of dealing with the unequal national responsibilities of different countries by enshrining the principle that each country dealt only with its own emissions. Rather, as we have seen, the UNFCCC takes aggregate national GHG emissions as its characterisation of which country is the largest contributor to global warming, irrespective of unequal national intensity of emissions in per capita terms. The NDC process indeed results in a reinforcement of national sovereignty over environmental resources, compounded by the absence of any supranational, UN, legally binding mechanisms of enforcement (Bodansky et al, 2017). For COP26, many countries failed to submit the necessary upgrade of the NDCs to meet the 1.5°C as against 2.0°C of the Paris Agreement. Moreover, yet another year has been lost by deferring the outstanding upgrades of NDCs to COP27 in 2022, with little pressure to do so.

One of the major consequences of the NDC political process was to attribute GHG emissions to the nations that produced them and hence attributing all mitigation responsibilities to the producer nation. Yet if emissions embodied in imported goods are included, the difference in CO₂ per capita terms of the US and India or China is increased by at least 50 per cent (Yamano and Guilhoto, 2020). As already noted in relation to the carbon intensive steel industry, the UK has witnessed an increasing negative trade balance, importing steel without adding to its carbon budget. Enlarging this picture to the trade balance in goods compared with services, the economic shape of the UK economic performance has been transformed, the export of services being more than overshadowed by a negative balance in goods of nearly £150 billion per annum (Figure 4).

A graph demonstrates of the UK trade balance from 1948 to 2018 shows how the UK had an increasing negative balance in manufactured goods, contrasted with an increasing positive balance for services.
Figure 4:

The UK trade balance, 1948–2018

Citation: Global Social Challenges Journal 1, 1; 10.1332/MEPZ5639

Source: House of Commons, 2020.

There is a double significance to this economic restructuring in relation to the sociogenesis of climate change: on the one hand, the UK is importing embodied CO₂eq on an increasing scale. But on the other, the UK challenge to decarbonise is dramatically reduced compared with manufacture-exporting countries, such as China or Germany. In significant part this accounts for the UK’s relatively low TES noted previously. This only illustrates in sharp terms the limitations of the NDC approach of allocating GHG emissions exclusively to the national production that generates them. So too, for another extreme example, the methane produced by Brazil’s 200 million head of cattle is allocated to that country, although as the largest beef exporter in the world, much of its beef is eaten elsewhere. The implication of this analysis, however, does not make the obverse distortion of allocating CO₂eq emissions exclusively to consumers, wherever they may be found. Rather, for a sociogenic analysis, the dynamic is the connection between production and consumption, joining both ends of the trade flows. The current disconnect enshrined in the NDC political process, and excluding the World Trade Organization, is a real and complex one: an importer of Chinese steel in present trading arrangements has no control or power over how that steel is produced, by what forms of energy or energy efficiency. The UN is, as presently constituted, ill-equipped at present even to address this disconnect.

In summary, it needs to be recognised that the UN was never constituted to deal with a crisis such as climate change, but rather, after two world wars, to have a primary remit to ensure the protection of national sovereignty over external aggression. Climate change – like pandemics – does not respect national boundaries. The global solution to climate change could never be the sum of all independently proffered national solutions (the NDCs). There has been an institutional lock-in to the principle of national sovereignty over territorial environmental resources, and national economic development, which prevents dealing with inequalities between nations, stranded assets of land and fossil energy, or international trade flows. The abject failure to reach and guarantee the absolute minimal transfer of $100 billion per annum from the richest countries to less wealthy countries for green transitions points to another aspect of the constriction of the UN powers within national sovereignty, and reliance on national voluntarism. Provocative perhaps, but the UN needs supranational tax-raising powers for a progressive tax on national wealth, both to reduce the CO₂ emissions of the wealthiest and promote the green development of the less wealthy economies. In short, to promote planetary egalitarianism over the planet’s resources and sustainability. The UN climate change process is misfit for purpose, a purpose which presents challenges quite unforeseen at the time of its formation.

A concluding observation

At the opening of this article, it was suggested that a social science analysis of how, by whom, when and where climate change is generated is a political necessity to complement the natural scientific view of anthropogenesis dealing with the impacts of sociogenerative processes. From an anthropogenic standpoint, it may not matter whether 100 Americans generate the same amount of GHG as 300 Chinese or 850 Indians, or whether a European consumes goods that embody CO₂eq which is several multiples that of the consumption of 50 per cent of the world’s poorest. Yet, as argued in the previous section, in order to achieve political solutions and appropriate international institutions, an analysis of both the historical legacies of the Great Divergence, and the present relation between national wealth inequalities and intensity of climate-change generation has become critical. The intimate connection between national wealth and the past and contemporary interactions between national societies and resource environments, whether national territorial or through colonisation and trade, is equally an integral part of that analysis. The intention behind the concept of sociogenesis, therefore, is to contribute a social scientific analysis that can serve as a political instrument to address the current paralysis, both national and international, that has created the climate emergency.

Notes

2

‘In the end, it is fair to say that the move to a less progressive tax system in the 1980s played a large part in the unprecedented growth of inequality in the United States and United Kingdom between 1980 and 2018’ (Piketty, 2020:32).

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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  • 1 University of Essex, , UK

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