Stop the Money Pipeline protest
Climate activists with Stop the Money Pipeline held a rally in New York City to urge Wall Street banks to stop funding fossil fuel projects on April 17. 2021.
(Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Capitalism Is Acting Truly Suicidally on Climate

If Amazon and Apple and Microsoft wanted to avoid a world where, by century’s end, people had 60% less money to spend on buying whatever they plan on selling, then they should be putting pressure on their banks to stop making the problem worse.

A new study released today in Nature examines data from 1,600 regions of the earth for the last 40 years, and concludes that by 2050 climate change will be causing economic damage worth $38 trillion every single year. That seems like… a lot. The entire world economy at the moment is about $100 trillion a year; the federal budget is about $6 trillion a year. $38 trillion is 150 Bezoses (which is sick in its own way).

If those numbers seem impossible to comprehend, then let Bloombergbreak it down for you, “planetary warming will result in an income reduction of 19% globally by mid-century, compared to a global economy without climate change.”

This is the largest study of this kind I know of; it comes from the Potsdam Institute in Germany, and as James Murray, writing in BusinessGreen points out, it’s more “granular and empirical” than past efforts. It concludes that these losses are already locked in, thanks to the carbon and methane we’ve already poured into the air.

“Strong income reductions are projected for the majority of regions, including North America and Europe, with South Asia and Africa being most strongly affected,” said PIK scientist and co-author of the study, Maximilian Kotz.

“These are caused by the impact of climate change on various aspects that are relevant for economic growth such as agricultural yields, labour productivity or infrastructure… We find that economies across the world are committed to an average income loss of 19% by 2049 due to past emissions. This corresponds to a 17% reduction in global GDP.”

If anything, as Murray points out, the numbers are quite likely conservative:

The projected damages are mainly the result of rising average temperatures and changes in rainfall and temperature variability. But other weather extremes that are harder to model, such as storms or wildfires, could result in higher economic costs. The study also assumes that over time economies start to adapt to more intense climate impacts, serving to curb the resulting negative economic impacts. As climate scientists have repeatedly warned, there are plausible scenarios where some regions find it near impossible to adapt and development is thrown into reverse. Such outcomes would trigger huge geopolitical risks that could impact the entire global economy.

What might cause even deeper problems? Just for fun, read another European study from last week, on the rapid slowdown in the Atlantic Ocean circulation and the possible looming shutdown of the entire system.

Oh, and if we don’t take strong action now to limit the rise in temperature, then the economic losses just keep growing—that 19% at mid-century becomes 60% by 2100, when people currently being born will still be alive, and cursing us.

There are a couple of things to say here.

One, some of you may remember the famous Limits to Growth report from the early 1970s. It predicted that without serious efforts to change our demands on the planet, economic growth would begin to suffer right about now. We thought about it as a society and then, with the election of Ronald Reagan, rejected it; we are now harvesting that bitter fruit. If we don’t act now then our children may wish they still had bitter fruit to harvest.

These people are supposed to care about money, and for once it would help us if they actually did.

Two, capitalism—which regularly acts homicidally—is acting truly suicidally. Having been warned for years now, it resists every effort to rein in its excesses. As Exxon’s CEO helpfully explained earlier this year, it’s not that you couldn’t make good money from renewable energy—you just couldn’t make “above average returns” because sunshine is free. So instead we’ll tank the world, and with it the world economy (which is a subset of the first, not the other way round).

In Europe, for instance, climate protest has finally persuaded regulators to start slowing loans to the fossil fuel industry—but new data this week makes it clear that the slack is being taken up by American banks, and not just the mighty money center banks that are already most deeply implicated in this immoral trade. Now regional banks are taking it up too:

Some of the U.S. regional banks stepping up oil, gas, and coal lending are based in states that have either passed or are reviewing anti-ESG laws. In Oklahoma, which enforced its Energy Discrimination Elimination Act in late 2022, local bank BOK Financial recently soared up the league table to become one of the world’s 30 busiest dealmakers in fossil fuels.

Marisol Salazar, senior vice president and manager for energy banking at BOK Financial, says the bank is now seeing “much more opportunities” in the fossil-fuel industry.

“We’re not just picking up customers,” she said. “We’re also picking up talent, we’re picking up engineers, we’re picking up investment bankers, we’re picking up experienced relationship managers.”

All of this makes even more important the release of the Carbon Bankroll 2.0 report earlier this spring. You’ll recall the first version of this report a year ago, which made it clear that for many companies—Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and on and on—the bulk of their carbon emissions came from the cash they kept in the bank, where it got lent out to build more fossil fuel infrastructure. That’s because, as the new report makes clear,

If the largest banks and asset managers in the U.S. were a country, they would be the third-largest emitting country in the world, behind China and the U.S.

So let’s think about this for a moment. If Amazon and Apple and Microsoft wanted to avoid a world where, by century’s end, people had 60% less money to spend on buying whatever phones and software and weird junk (doubtless weirder by then) they plan on selling, then they should be putting pressure on their banks to stop making the problem worse. They should also be unleashing their lobbying teams to demand climate action from Congress.

These people are supposed to care about money, and for once it would help us if they actually did. Stop putting out ads about how green your products are—start making this system you dominate actually work.

This is not a radical proposition. A radical—and probably wise, if unlikely—proposition would be get past capitalism. But for the moment this is where we are, and the people who dominate it have an obligation to make it work, if only out of their own sad self-interest.

Here’s how the unradical Todd Stern—longtime American climate negotiator at international talks—put it in a quite powerful speech he gave last week in the U.K.:

“We are slowed down by those who think of themselves as grownups and believe decarbonisation at the speed the climate community calls for is unrealistic.”

“They say that we need to slow down, that what is being proposed [in cuts to greenhouse gas emissions] is unrealistic,” he told The Observer. “You see it a lot in the business world too. It’s really hard [to push for more urgency] because those ‘grownups’ have a lot of influence.”

Stern says that the ‘grownups’ will only listen when the rest of us push:

The original Earth Day in 1970 happened in a societal moment that isn’t easily replicated, but it does teach that there is still more to do in filling the streets and campuses with young people and people young at heart who see the danger of climate change for what it is.

What that original Earth Day represented was not just norm change but a sociopolitical tipping point in environmental concern—the kind of positive tipping point we need to reach on climate change as well. And it will come. But it has to be our collective mission to make it come sooner.

Indeed! Watch this space.

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