The climate crisis, according to Thomas Piketty

Image: Ariful Haque


Carbon inequality is currently one of the most pressing problems in the world

Issues of social and economic class must be at the heart of our response to the climate crisis, to tackle the huge inequalities between the carbon footprint of the rich and the poor and avoid a backlash against climate policies, said economist Thomas Piketty.

Regulations will be needed to ban goods and services that have unnecessarily high greenhouse gas emissions, such as private jets, large vehicles and short-haul flights, he said in an interview with the newspaper The Guardian.

Rich countries should also create progressive carbon taxes that take into account people's income and their ability to reduce emissions, as current policies do not adapt to people's real needs.

“We must place class and studies of inequality between social classes at the center of our analyzes of environmental challenges in general,” said Thomas Piketty. “If we don’t do that, we won’t be able to get a majority [of people in favor of strong action] and we won’t be able to get it done.”

The prominent French economist is the author of the seminal work Capital in the XNUMXst century and one of the world's leading thinkers on inequality. His work was very influential after the 2008 financial crisis and he is increasingly paying attention to the climate crisis as co-director of World Inequality Lab.

To date, although environmentalists have pointed the finger at developed countries, contrasting their high emissions with the plight of the developing world, any form of class analysis – addressing the concerns of poor people in rich countries – has been largely missing part, according to Thomas Piketty. “One of the great failures of the environmental movement has been its tendency to ignore the class dimension and social inequality. I find that very surprising.”

He said the issue of carbon inequality is currently one of the most pressing problems in the world. Deep carbon inequality “is now greater than it has ever been since the XNUMXth century,” he said. This is an important factor in the attacks being made on climate policy by some sectors.

Misguided energy policies around the world burden poor people, for whom energy, food and housing represent a much larger share of household budgets than for the better-off. According to Thomas Piketty, this fact is causing a negative reaction.

If climate policies are seen as unfair, affecting low-income people while those with luxurious lifestyles remain untouched, protest movements will emerge, such as the “vests yellows” that paralyzed France five years ago, he said. “Everyone now understands that everyone will have to make some effort [to reduce emissions], it won’t just be the rich. But this effort has to be distributed in a way that can be accepted by the population. If we don't address this issue, we will have a huge yellow vest movement everywhere. And that’s kind of what we have.”

In addition to regulation aimed at limiting the most unnecessary emissions, Thomas Piketty suggests a “progressive carbon tax”, through which everyone would have an emissions-free allowance covering normal needs, but activities that exceed this limit – such as frequent flights holidays, large houses or large vehicles – would be taxed at greater increases, so that the most polluting activities would be subject to “huge taxation”.

He believes this approach would be popular. Currently, many less well-off people are worried that they will bear the brunt of emissions reduction measures. “Many people, and the most disadvantaged socioeconomic groups, feel that everything is against them and that they will pay for everyone, especially people in rural areas. That’s a big part of the political difficulty we currently have,” he said. “We have to try to do everything we can to convince these groups that the people at the top are paying their fair share. We have to start at the top, [with] the people who fly private jets.”

The climate crisis is often seen as an opposition between developed countries, the so-called global north, and developing countries, in the global south. But poor people in rich countries risk being seduced by nationalist or populist politicians who oppose climate action.

Thomas Piketty argues that these people need to be assured that their interests are also being considered. “If we want to escape this kind of nationalist, country-against-country sentiment, we have to develop a new form of class solidarity that goes beyond the nation-state,” he says. “We have to convince the middle class and lower income groups in the [global] North that, by forcing richer groups to contribute much more and reduce their lifestyle, we will be helping to solve the problem in the [global] South ], but this can at the same time solve some problems in the North”.

Without these reforms, said Thomas Piketty, “we will have a major climate catastrophe” as current policies are not working.

*Fiona Harvey is a journalist.

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

Originally published in the newspaper The Guardian.

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