The Ides of the climate crisis as children march

Children hold a banner saying ‘march now or swim later’ at a demonstration against climate change in Hamburg, Germany, at the start of the month. Thousands of students took part in the school strike. Picture: Focke Strangmann/EPA

Societies that are politically and socially are will prepared to face the environmental shocks that climate change will inevitably bring, writes Éloi Laurent.

Today on the Ides of March, the day by which ancient Romans were expected to settle their debts, young people in 60 countries around the world will stage a school walkout to press world leaders for more urgent action on climate change.

It is a tragedy that younger generations are forced to speak out against the injustice they will suffer as a result of choices made by others; yet, at the same time, it is deeply reassuring to witness their power and passion as they try to change the course of history.

Concerns about the intergenerational injustice of the climate crisis are of a piece with concerns about inequality in the here and now. Following in the footsteps of his papal namesake, Francis of Assisi (named patron saint of ecology in 1979), Pope Francis observed in his May 2015 encyclical that “we are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental”.

This means that making the necessary shift to an ecologically sustainable economy cannot ignore the challenges that many people are already facing today. But just as the problems of climate change and inequality go hand in hand, so do the solutions.

Adopting renewable energy, for example, can also yield massive health benefits, create jobs, and improve other indicators of social wellbeing.

In fact, according to the Lancet Commission, “tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century”. As younger generations already recognise, our economic systems can no longer be based on the logic of trade-offs, and must now follow the logic of social-environmental synergy.

Fortunately, more policymakers are also coming to this realisation.

Consider the proposals in the US for a ‘Green New Deal’, which is designed to address the “systemic injustice” driving today’s ecological crises, the brunt of which is borne by “frontline and vulnerable communities”.

The hardship and calamities that these populations — which include children, the elderly, the poor, and many ethnic minorities — are already suffering will befall all of us if we continue to destroy our habitat blindly and with abandon.

Or consider a recent open letter co-signed by many of the world’s top economists calling for carbon dividends of the type economist James K Boyce has proposed. To be sure, such a policy would help to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

However, it would succeed only if it included measures to ensure the most vulnerable are not hurt by the introduction of a carbon price. Presumably, the recent protests in France will have provided ample warning to policymakers considering this route. Environmental policies must also be social policies.

One country making notable progress toward social-environmental synergy is China. Now that the government’s war on pollution has started to show results, people in many parts of the country are enjoying the benefits of better air quality. According to the Energy Policy Institute’s recently released Air Quality Life Index, sustained exposure to particulate matter in the air can result in lower life expectancy for affected communities.

Yet by reducing local pollution, particularly in urban areas, China is not just improving the wellbeing of its citizens; it is also reducing carbon-dioxide pollution globally.

Policymakers in Europe are also advocating concrete proposals to advance the goals of sustainable equality. A report from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, for example, acknowledges that “inequality is an environmental issue just as environmental degradation is also a social issue.”

Accordingly, it offers a series of recommendations for reducing emissions in key sectors such as heavy manufacturing and agriculture while also supporting the communities that will be most affected.

By definition, all of the policies being designed around social-environmental synergy will yield “co-benefits” with respect to inequality and climate change. But, equally important, they will also benefit humanity both in the present and the future.

The fact is that our societies will be more just if they are more sustainable, and more sustainable if more just.

Societies that have been rendered socially and politically fragile by inequality will be ill-prepared to face the environmental shocks from climate change. And as ecological conditions continue to deteriorate, one should expect to witness an explosion of injustices, new and old.

“Why should I care about future generations?” Groucho Marx is said to have quipped. “What have they ever done for me?”

Today, young people around the world will remind us that the question is moot. While our debt to posterity grows ever larger, young people are asking merely that we help them by helping ourselves.

Éloi Laurent is a senior research fellow at OFCE (Sciences Po Center for Economic Research, Paris), Professor at the School of Management and Innovation at Sciences Po, and visiting professor at Stanford University.

He is the author of the forthcoming The New Environmental Economics — Sustainability and Justice.

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