Piketty about Inequality

Superyacht resembling one owned by a Russian oligarch

As world leaders prepared for COP27 in Egypt, the acclaimed French economist, Thomas Piketty, warned in Le Monde, “It is impossible to seriously fight climate change without profound redistribution of wealth.” He echoed an earlier UN report.

There’s a vicious cycle in which people who are already disadvantaged are disproportionately affected by climate change as they suffer from more inequality. The political headwinds have been going against the socio-ecological left that advocates wealth redistribution. Nationalist governments rise and even Lula’s agenda will be strained by gusts from Brazilian agribusiness interests.

I guess the wealth gap between the super-rich and the rest of humanity is greater today than ever. Piketty blames the Great Recession of 2008 and Covid for widening the gulf. To give it perspective, imagine if a nation the size of Switzerland (8 million and only 0.1% of total humanity) owned 20% of the world’s wealth (equivalent to a year of global GDP). Narrower differences in prosperity have sometimes sparked violent revolutions in history, so we hope for a peaceful transition to greater social justice.

Climate change impacts everyone, but the wealthiest enjoy outsized shares of the world’s goods and are least affected. They can escape disasters in their superyachts and private airplanes to other penthouse suites or chateaux adorned with rare artworks and rest secure with investments spread wide and hidden. The poor are stuck in situ and migration is getting harder for them.

The top benefits for the poor and middle classes from redistributing wealth are education, health, and housing. Investing in human capital will enable them to benefit from clean energy and climate mitigation and reduce their risks from pollution and dangerous occupations. And as child mortality falls in the poorest countries, the incentive to have large families will wane faster.

Unfortunately, Professor Piketty isn’t attending COP27 although he has probably made these points in his chapter of Greta Thunberg’s new climate book.

Thank Goodness for Greta

Greta has published a new book. Her first name is all you need to know who I mean … and even that’s unnecessary to recognize the teenager on the cover of the current Time. How predictable that when the magazine made her Person of the Year commentators divided like the fabled sea so the the Children of Israel to could pass. But her passage has been far from smooth or even safe. Many people admire her stoical mien and meteoric rise from a lonely caller for action on climate from the steps of Sweden’s parliamentary buildings to represent millions on the world’s stage. Shameless critics write ugly diatribes, doubtless without reading No One is Too small to Make a Difference (Penguin, 2019). But she joins an admirable tradition of ‘small’ people, like Emmeline Pankhurst and Mohandas Gandhi, harangued for unpopular messages before universal honor.

Greta Thunberg

No matter how sincere a conviction, it is empty without a foundation. Greta earned attention by sticking to science. It is ironic that most climate change deniers are not anti-science, for they embrace its fruits (weather forecasting and electronic media, electricity and air travel, and encourage children to study STEM subjects and acknowledge the benefits of science in countless other ways). Human nature can be puzzling.

Greta writes, “unite behind the science, that is our demand.” The book assumes the authority of careful independent research since humanity has not found a better way to understand the world, make our lives easier, and conquer pain. She urges greater investment in technology for low-carbon economies, wishes for more cooperation and less competition, and hopes for environmental justice and the curbing of habitat loss. None of this is fresh thinking but a young voice must be heard for her generation will live to see how hostile the planet will turn.

The devastating effects of fire I saw recently on Notre-Dame cathedral was an apt analogy for Greta’s speech to the European Parliament. There was a more rapt response and no twitter tantrums there. She said, “I want you to act as if your house is on fire. Because it is.”

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