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Climate Disaster: The Greatest Generation? | Robin Hahnel

The Centre for Postcapitalist Civilisation, mέta, presents Professor Robin Hahnel’s lecture, Climate Disaster: The Greatest Generation?, given at Evergreen State College on the 9th of November 2021 at the invitation of Prof. Savvina Chowdhury and in the context of the ‘Climate Foundations: Political Economy & Political Ecology’ course.

The lecture’s notes:

Climate Disaster: The Greatest Generation?

Robin Hahnel

Generational Challenges

The Greatest Generation is a book by journalist Tom Brokaw which profiles those who grew up in the United States during the deprivation of the Great Depression, and then went on to fight in World War II, as well as those whose productivity within the war’s home front made a decisive material contribution to the war effort.

When my generation came of age in the 1960s we faced formidable challenges

  • After WWII our country quickly became the biggest bully in the world — asserting a right to intervene in the political affairs of other countries in ways we would never tolerate other countries to intervene in ours.
  • Five generations after slaves were freed, their AfricanAmerican decedents living in the 1960s continued to be consigned to second class citizenship.
  • By 1966 the trend toward greater economic equality that began during the New Deal and continued briefly after WWII had come to an end.
  • And the forward momentum of the suffragettes had also been reversed — as Rosie the riveter was sent home to again become an obedient housewife.

As we responded to these challenges my generation was not entirely without accomplishments

  • To this day I am personally most proud that the anti-Vietnam War movement in which I was an activist contributed substantially toward ending that terrible conflict.
  • African-Americans of my generation, helped by a small minority of whites committed to winning civil rights for all, brought legalized racial discrimination to an end.
  • For a few years some of us known as “hippies” challenged Victorian sexual taboos and embraced a culture of cooperation, solidarity, and love.
  • And women of my generation launched “second wave” Feminism which arguably has achieved my generation’s most permanent accomplishments.

But no historian will confuse my generation with the greatest generation. Among our many failures the most notable are:

  • After helping force US withdrawal from Vietnam, our Peace Movement failed to secure a “good neighbor” foreign policy, and permitted the US to continue to act as the world’s biggest bully right up to the present day.
  • We failed to extend the trend toward greater economic equality coming out of WWII. Instead, over the past fifty years we permitted the most rapid rise of inequality of income and wealth EVER!
  • And we have now permitted our most important accomplishments in the areas of securing minority and women’s rights to be undone by a resurgence of racist and misogynist “roll back.”

In Short

Nothing could better symbolize our failure as a generation than the Presidency of Donald Trump, who is exactly my age, who will go down in history as the worst President EVER, and still may become President again as the Nominee of a Republican Party which he now dominates completely.

Donald Trump rose from spoiled-child and Vietnam War draft dodger to become a caricature of illgotten wealth, racism, misogyny, and American exceptionalism – which he proudly touts as his

“America First” foreign policy.

Your Generation

But my talk today is about something else. It is not about a previous generation that deserved the moniker of the “greatest generation,” nor about my own generation which regrettably came up short. My talk is about your generation and climate change.

Arguably my generation’s greatest failure is that we have left your generation to respond to the worst crisis and greatest challenge, humanity has ever faced.

Climate Change: The Greatest Crisis EVER!

Climate change is different from all previous human crises. By over-filling the upper atmosphere with greenhouse gases, humans now risk triggering catastrophic changes in the earth’s climate with literally unthinkable consequences for human civilization and life on the planet.

The overwhelming consensus among climate scientists is that unless we reduce global carbon emissions by at least 80% by 2050 we may pass a climate tipping point beyond return.

Good News and Bad News

The good news is that it is not yet too late. Nor does salvation require new technologies which are unknown and untested. It is perfectly possible for 10 billion people to live far more comfortably than most people live today on this planet, powered almost entirely by renewable energy technologies already at our disposal.

But there is every reason to believe that in order to achieve the “transition” that is necessary your generation will have to overcome political obstacles as great as any generation has ever faced.

First, let’s talk about what you must do. Then we can talk about the formidable obstacles that stand in your way.

What Is to Be Done?

No country can solve the problem of climate change on its own.

Reducing  carbon  emissions  is  what   we economists call a “global public good,” which creates a perverse incentive for every country to attempt to “free ride” on emission reductions by other countries.

To prevent this “tragedy of the commons” requires effective international cooperation.


The international community has gathered to great fanfare to try to tackle this problem five times over the past thirty years.

In: Rio de Janeiro in 1992

Kyoto Japan in 1997

Copenhagen Denmark in 2009

Paris France in 2015

And now, in Glasgow Scotland in 2021


What Is Needed… Where We Are…

First I am going to present the outlines of an international treaty that is what is needed… and is possible…. even while most countries continue to have capitalist economies.

Then I’m going to talk about what was launched in Paris instead in 2015, and what is now going on in Glasgow… and may still be possible.

An International Climate Agreement should be Effective, Equitable, and Efficient

  • Effective means: By 2050 global greenhouse gas emissions must be down at least 80% below their level in 1990.
  • Equitable means: National responsibility for emission reductions must be allocated according to differential responsibility and capability.
  • Efficient means: Reductions should take place wherever they are cheapest.

Fortunately we know what kind of international agreement can accomplish all this

  • The size and speed of global emission reductions must be chosen based on information provided by climate scientists.
  • The distribution of national reductions must be done in accord with differential responsibility and capability as calculated by “equity specialists” like those at NGOs such as EcoEquity.
  • Country governments should be allowed, if they wish, to certify emission reduction credits (CERs) for sources within their territories to sell in an international carbon market.
  • When calculating whether or not a country has done its fair share to prevent climate change, reduction credits purchased by any entity within the country should be subtracted from the country’s reduction responsibility, while any credits sold by any entity within the country should be added to the country’s reduction responsibility.

Why Would This Work?

  • While it is difficult to determine how many credits to award an applicant for emission reductions, it is easy to measure annual national emissions, which must be done in any case.
  • As long as national emissions are capped and compliance with national caps are enforced, any mistakes a country government may make when awarding emission reduction credits cannot undermine overall global emission reductions which is the only issue that need concern the international community.
  • Because charity and guilt are far less powerful incentives in today’s world than self-interest, negotiations over climate reparations, climate debt, technology transfers, and adaptation funds will continue to yield much less than what is needed and deserved. On the other hand, if national emission caps are set fairly self-interest would drive sources in developed countries to purchase certified emission reduction credits from sellers in less developed countries and thereby provide LDCs the opportunity to achieve economic development in an environmentally sustainable way.

What Is Happening Instead?

None of the MDCs agreed to accept fair shares that are binding. Instead, in Paris countries agreed to make “pledges” to reduce their national emissions by specific amounts. Shortly I’ll say something about those pledges. But Paris moved us from national emission reductions which are binding to pledges.

It also moved us from a treaty which would have required contributions to be fair, to one where MDCs are making voluntary pledges in that regard as well.

Since it is both unfair and impractical to expect LDCs to pay for all the reductions in their countries which are needed, and it is cheaper to make reductions in LDCs than in MDCs, MDCs have also pledged to make technology transfers and contribute to a fund to help finance emission reductions in LDCs.

So far the aggregate reduction pledges fall short of what is needed to meet the 1.5 degree Celsius bar scientists have set. And so far the pledges of financial support for LDCs are woefully inadequate.

Glasgow is an attempt to improve in both these regards.

A Massive Green New Deal in the Advanced Economies

  • Replacing fossil fuels with renewables, transforming not only transportation, but industry and agriculture as well to be much more energy efficient, and rebuilding our entire built infrastructure to conserve energy will be an immense, historic undertaking.
  • What is needed if we are to avoid unacceptable climate change is the greatest technological “reboot” in economic history. We need to transform what we should think of as today’s Fossil-fuel-estan Economies into Renewconserve-estan Economies.

What does this kind of Green New Deal (GND) consist of?

A GND requires a large green fiscal stimulus – a dramatic increase in government spending on projects like transforming the electric grid to integrate renewable sources, and tax credits for renewable energy.

But since private investment far outweighs public investment, for a GND to be large enough to achieve the necessary transformation means the government must intervene in the credit system to redirect private investment away from asset bubbles and environmentally destructive luxury goods for the wealthy, into renewables and energy conservation.

There IS a Precedent!

The transformation of the US economy in response to WWII is the precedent we need to look to. There is already a substantial literature demonstrating that increasing spending on energy conservation and renewable energy production will create significantly more jobs per dollar of expenditure than spending on fossil fuel extraction and the military.

Some of the most extensive studies have been done by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts, under the directorship of Professor Robert Pollin, and are available to the public on their website: www.peri.umass.edu.

Gridlock at the National Level

The Republican Party is doing, and will continue to do everything in its power, to block a GND. Which means that the first task for your generation is to help build the “resistance” movement working to expand the Democratic governing majority, and to replace rightwing Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kirsten Synema who are busy sabotaging the GND with

Democrats who do not.

Opportunities at the Regional and State Levels

In absence of any progress by the national government prior to the Biden administration, much was and is being done in blue states where Democrats control state houses and legislatures.

Climate legislation in California has dramatically reduced emissions there, including inducing car manufactures to make their new cars far more energy efficient nationally since they are now required to meet standards in California, their largest single market..

The Oregon legislature passed the Clean Fuels Program in 2015 which will reduce carbon emissions from the transportation sector by 10%. In 2016 Governor Kate Brown signed the Clean Electricity and Coal Transition bill which will remove coal entirely from Oregon’s electricity by 2030, and double the state’s renewable portfolio standard to 50% by 2040. And when the Clean Energy and Jobs bill was torpedoed by three Republican walkouts to prevent a quorum and vote, Governor Brown issued an executive order in 2021 which will cut state GHG emissions by even more than the legislation Republicans scuttled would have.

Most recently, the Inslee administration in Washington State has finally passed significant legislation now that the Democrats control both houses of the State legislature.

Developing Economies Must Develop Differently

If they are able to sell emission reduction credits to developing countries, LDCs will discover that even though they have more lenient emission caps due to their lesser responsibility and capability, their best route to development is not fossil fuel dependent.

The whole point of the Greenhouse Development Rights Framework developed by EcoEquity in consultation with NGOs from the global south is to prevent climate change without denying anyone the opportunity to achieve economic development by creating incentives so LDCs will develop without depending on fossil fuels.

In Sum

The problem is not that we do not know what the solution looks like.

The problem is not that we must hang our hopes on invention of some miraculous new technology like carbon capture or cold fusion.

The problem is overcoming the political obstacles that stand in our way to launching the program just outlined.

What Are Those Obstacles?

1. The fossil fuel industry has been the most powerful industry in the world for over a hundred years – dominating domestic energy policy, and exerting great influence over foreign policy as well. The fossil fuel industry will lose a great deal of wealth if most of the carbon it owns is left in the ground, as it must be if we are to avoid triggering irreversible climate change. Which means the fossil fuel industry has everything to fight for, and plenty of money, political influence, and lobbying knowhow to fight with.

2. North-South Political Gridlock

Ever since the “Climate Summit” held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the major obstacle to an effective international agreement has been disagreement over who should bear the burden of preventing climate change.

Every international meeting has reaffirmed that (1) because climate change is a global commons problem it can only be solved if all countries cooperate, but (2) countries bear different responsibilities for having caused the problem, and have different capabilities for contributing to its solution.

There was long an intellectual problem as well as a political problem preventing this “agreement” from being put into action.

The intellectual problem which went unsolved for decades was how to make differential responsibility and capability operational – i.e. how to quantify these concepts. Fortunately, climate equity “experts” like those at EcoEquity have now solved this intellectual problem, and national “fair shares” of global emission reductions can now be easily calculated. See the “climate equity calculator” at www.ecoequity.org.

Of course that doesn’t solve the political problem, which is convincing countries they must do their fair share…. And that is one of the difficult tasks that remains for your generation to tackle.

But isn’t China now the problem?

  • Let me illustrate by rebutting one popular myth, namely that the big problem is China, which has now passed the US in annual greenhouse gas emissions. Nothing could be farther from the truth!
  • Only two countries were responsible for more than 10% of global carbon emissions in 2015 -China was responsible for 30% and the US was responsible for 15%. So yes, China emitted more in 2015 than the US.

China vs. the United States

But the population of the US was only 325 million in 2015, and the population of China was 1.4 billion – more than four times as large!

The relevant metric when thinking about who is responsible for creating the problem is emissions per capita, which in 2015 was only 7.7 tons in China, while it was 16.1 tons in the US.

Moreover, since greenhouse gases can remain in the upper atmosphere for over a hundred years, what produces climate change is cumulative emissions. If we compare cumulative emissions from 1970–2013, the US ranks first, the countries that now comprise the European Union rank second, and China is a distant third — even though China has a much larger population than either the US or the EU.

US pledge vs. the Chinese pledge

The US “fair share” of emission reductions by 2030 compared to emissions in 2009 is based on US historic responsibility for cumulative emissions, and how wealthy the US is compared to other countries.

The US “fair share” is 14 billion metric tons, which can be divided into two parts: The reductions the US should do domestically — 5 billion metric tons. And the reductions the US should pay for to reduce in other countries since it would be cheaper than reducing them domestically — 9 billion metric tons.

At the Paris meetings in 2015 the US pledge to take responsibility for reductions in GHG emissions fell far short of our fair share.

In Paris the Chinese pledged to reduce emissions domestically by their full fair share!

US emission trajectory

China emission trajectory

Good News and Bad News

  • The pledges from most LDCs are the good news because they have pledged to do their fair share, and if MDCs would do likewise we would be well on our way to a global emission path that reduces the risk of cataclysmic climate change to an acceptable level.
  • The bad news is that almost all MDCs have not pledged to take responsibility for their fair shares, including the latest pledge from the Biden administration even if the US is no longer a “rogue climate state” as it was under President Trump for the last four years. However, there may be a silver lining.
  • For the most part MDCs have pledged to reduce their domestic emissions sufficiently – their pledges are close to their dotted green lines. The problem is that MDCs’ greater responsibility and capability requires them to pay for more emission reduction than they can reasonably accomplish domestically.
  • Fortunately this can be accomplished – MDCs can reach their blue lines -at a reasonable cost if sources in MDCs purchase CERs from sources in LDCs, or alternatively if MDCs agree to finance sufficient reductions in LDCs. A recent study by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts estimates the cost for the US would be roughly 1.5% of GDP, which is far less than the 3.5% of GDP we currently spend on the military.

The challenge for your generation

The key to overcoming the immense obstacles to secure necessary international cooperation, launch GNDs in the MDCs, and promote economic development powered by renewable energy in LDCs is to build a massive global climate movement.

To overcome political gridlock and defeat the fossil fuel lobby may well require a climate movement that is broader, stronger, and more strategically adroit than any previous progressive movement in human history… Which, in short, is the challenge your generation now faces.

Climate Change and System Change: A Word

The Left does a marvelous job of explaining all the ways in which capitalism makes our economies prone to causing climate change, as well as other kinds of environmental destruction.

I should know… I’ve contributed a great deal to this literature myself!

And there is good reason to believe that at least some versions of an alternative to capitalism would no longer be environmentally unsustainable, but instead protect the environment so future generations enjoy living standards and environmental “amenities” even greater than we enjoy today.

I have worked for decades to ensure that what economists call externalities would be fully accounted for during annual participatory planning, and that a long-run environmental planning procedure would adequately protect future generations from unsustainable environmental practices in the post-capitalist model known as a participatory economy.

Facing Up to the Sober Truth

BUT… unless we take adequate measures to prevent cataclysmic climate change in the next two decades, it may well be too late.

AND unfortunately, it is unrealistic to believe that anti-capitalist movements will be strong enough, soon enough, in enough countries in time to do that.

And that is why “system change” cannot be our answer to

“climate change.”

HOWEVER, we are not doomed yet! Fortunately, there is still enough time to prevent cataclysmic climate change even while capitalism persists. But only if we manage to replace Fossil-fuel-estan capitalism with Renew-conserveestan capitalism… and only if we do this starting NOW!

Appendix: Carbon tax, Tradable Permit, Offset

A carbon tax charges emitters $x per metric ton of carbon emitted. What is done with the revenue depends on the program.

A tradable permit program sets a limit of Y metric tons of carbon which can be emitted by “covered” sources, and requires any “covered” source emitting z metric tons to own z permits. The Y permits can be sold at an auction, or given out for free, or a combination of the two depending on the program. What is done with revenues from any permits sold at auction, and who gets permits free of charge depends on the program. “Tradable” means that whoever has a permit is free to trade it later to anyone else who wants to buy it from them, in what is called an “open permit market.”

In its most common form a carbon offset is something which private parties can buy should they so choose, to pay for the damage their own behavior causes because it emits CO2. Example: When you fly on an airplane you can buy offsets that “pay” for the damage you cause because the plane emits CO2. You buy the offset from an entity which then uses it to finance some project designed to reduce carbon emissions, such as reforestation.

Issues, Equivalence, Effectiveness, Equity, Efficiency

Issue 1: What is done with tax revenues? What is done with the revenue from any permits auctioned off, or any payments for offsets?

Issue 2: What activity is covered? If not all, which emitters must pay a tax, or own a permit? For what activities are offsets available?

Equivalence: Suppose a tax of $x per metric ton of CO2 reduces emissions by an amount leaving Y metric tons in total emitted. In theory, the exact same thing would happen if Y permits were auctioned off.

How Effective any program is depends on how many tons continue to be emitted… period.

How Equitable any program is depend on: (a) How carbon intensive one’s consumption is. Fact: Poor people tend to spend a higher percentage of their income on carbon intensive activity — putting gas in their cars and heating their homes — so carbon taxes and permit programs tend to be “regressive.” And (b) what measures are taken to make the program more fair – for example, rebating poorer households from the revenues collected from either carbon taxes or auctioned permits.

If all sources are covered by a program, any carbon tax, or permit program where permits are tradable will be Efficient. And any alternative program, such as mandated reductions in emissions, will be demonstrably less efficient.