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A House of Cards

December 1, 2008

There are those among us who, whilst not willing to admit this publicly, probably deep down take the view that with 6+ billion people on this planet, we can probably afford to lose a few under climate change. Certainly if you look at something like the Stern Review, which uses a “willingness to pay” index to value lives, it is clear that some lives are seen as much cheaper than others. This is quite an extreme expression of a “Them” and “Us” mentality. It is also a profound mistake, because we depend on them having livable lives for our stability and prosperity.

1) Economic links. We use ‘them’ as cheap labour (Thus passim), and this keeps our inflation down. India provides cheap services, China cheap goods, and both countries, with their dense populations and huge food needs, look set to be hit hard by climate change. To put it in context, India alone has 1/10 the land area of Africa and yet 200 million more heads of population. Asia is where climate change bites, and it is also where things get made cheaply, all because of population.

2) Resource conflicts. As we hit resource crunches, not only does this drive prices up, making the inflation problem worse, but it also fuels conflict. The emerging nuclear flash-point around the River Indus illustrates this. If we don’t take livelihoods at the bottom seriously, then conflicts like the Indus, which hinge around water, food and agriculture, will only get worse. The Doha trade round foundered over agriculture, partly because the Northern Countries refuse to accept how precarious life is for those at the bottom. This willful ignorance could lead to nuclear war.

3) Terrorism. The attacks in Bombay were organised with cheap weaponry available all over the world at rock-bottom prices. Inequality and natural resource conflict are two factors that are strongly correlated with both state and non-state violence. Unless we stabilise things for those at the bottom, in the face of potential mass poorslaughter (Thus passim), we are likely to see a lot more violence. Bear in mind also that the radical shift of energy sources required to mitigate climate change will also drive the prices of basic commodities up, energy mainly, but also food via biofuels, worsening the inflation problem and also pressures on the poor and thus the risks of terrorism.

To my mind these three factors mean that we have to provide social stability to those at the bottom. In the face of climate change this is more than a moral imperative, it is a matter of collective survival. Without social stability, how do we expect to implement the huge changes required to avoid ranaway climate change? If we try and enrich the poor by market mechanisms, the inequality that results is likely to cost the planet. Thus we need non market mechanisms, or in other words we need basic rights. We need basic rights that will guarantee a basic livelihood for all (Thus passim) in the face of a changing climate. If we do not so this, then we will all be New Orleans.