By the Blouin News Science & Health staff

Avoiding extinction: Green capitalism

by in Environment.

Ice Bay, Alaska

Ice Bay, Alaska

Graciela Chichilnisky is a Professor of Economics and Statistics at Columbia University in New York, as well as the Director of the Columbia Consortium for Risk Management. The views, opinions and positions expressed by the author of this blog are hers alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions or positions of Blouin News or Louise Blouin Media. This blog is part four of a series. 

The task in front of us is nothing less than building the human future. In the midst of the sixth largest extinction of planet earth, facing potentially catastrophic climate change and extinction of marine life in the world’s seas – the basis of life on earth – we can fairly say that this qualifies as a global emergency. And with the adult humans in charge we came so close to the brink that it would appear right now that only the young can help.

A green future is about sharing the wealth and saving the planet. Is this an impossible mandate? We need to stave off biodiversity extinction and reduce carbon emissions, while rebuilding the world economy and supporting the needs of developing nations. Is this possible?

It is, and to understand the solutions we need to look closer at the root of the problem so we can change it.

The world since WWII

Rapid expansion of international markets since WWII – which were led by the Bretton Woods institutions – led to enormous consumption of resources. Industrialization is resource intensive. It was fueled by cheap resources from developing nations – forests, minerals, biodiversity. These resources were and continue to be exported at very low prices – and as a result, poverty grew in resource exporting regions and provided “competitive advantage” in the form of cheap labor and cheap resources that exacerbated and amplified resource overconsumption in the North. Resources were over-extracted in poor nations desperate for export revenues, and over consumed in industrial nations – thus leading to an ever expanding Global Wealth Divide. Globalization since WWII increased together with an increasing Global Divide between the rich and the poor nations – the North and the South. This is how the global financial system that was created by the Bretton Woods Institutions in 1945, which is tied up with the financial crisis of the day, is also tied up with the global environmental problems we face, and with the global divide between the North and the South.

Since energy use goes hand in hand with economic progress, and most of the energy used in the world today is fossil (87%), GDP growth is closely tied with carbon emissions. Industrial nations consume about 70% of the world’s energy, and the North – South divide is therefore inexorably connected to the carbon emissions that are destroying the stability of our global climate.

Of course, the same North – South Divide is the stumbling block in the climate negotiation as it was clear in the last global United Nations negotiations on climate issues, in Copenhagen Denmark Convention of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP) 15 and then Cancun Mexico COP 16. The problem is: Who should use the world resources? Or, otherwise put, who should abate carbon emissions?

It can be said that we are re-living last century’s Cold War conflict, but this time it is a conflict between China and the USA. Each party could destroy the world as they are the largest emitters and can by themselves change the world’s climate. Each wants the other to “disarm” – namely to reduce carbon emissions — first. This time the conflict is between the rich nations represented by the USA and the poor nations represented by China. This time it has become clear that the solution requires that we overcome the North – South Divide, the use of the world’s resources between the rich and the poor nations. Otherwise put, global justice and the environment are two sides of the same coin. Poverty is caused by cheap resources in a world where developing nations are the main seller of natural resources into the international market, resources which are consumed by the rich nations. This perverse economic dynamics is destroying the stability of the atmosphere of the planet, undermining climate patterns and causing the 6th largest extinction in the history of the planet.

Humans are part of the complex web of species that makes life on Earth. How long will it take until this situation reaches its logical limits and victimizes our own species? How to avoid extinction? The Gordian knot that we must sever is the link between natural resources, fossil energy and economic progress. Only clean energy can achieve this. But this requires changing a US$55 trillion power plant infrastructure, the power plants that produce electrical power around the world because 87% of world’s energy is driven by fossil fuels and power plants produce 45% of the global carbon emissions. In short – how to make a swift transition to renewable energy?

– Graciela Chichilnisky

Follow this blog for the next chapter on “Avoiding Extinction,” and answers to questions about the carbon markets.