The World Economic Forum’s annual Davos gathering gives world leaders and rich people the chance to talk about their worst ideas and beliefs. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin really took the cake this year.
While Greta Thunberg was explaining the urgent need to phase the global economy out of fossil fuels, noted asshole Mnuchin was defending cutting taxes for the rich. Then he mocked Greta, saying that “after she goes and studies economics in college, she can come back and explain that to us.”
In reality, Greta’s done a better job than most at explaining the economics of climate change to her audiences. As she explained in her Davos speech, the stakes of the climate crisis are so high that the economic cost of inaction will be much higher than the cost of rapidly phasing out of fossil fuels.
But that’s not why we have to act. We have to act because it’s the right thing to do. Greta and other youth climate leaders are clear about that, and it seems to have had an impact. The climate conversation has rapidly shifted over the past 18 or so months, which is why people like Mnuchin who want to let the world burn resort to schoolyard taunts. They have no moral leg to stand on. Recent research in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science backs up the idea that we need that kind of moral framing if we’re going to get a critical mass of people to push leaders for meaningful solutions.
Opponents of strong climate policy will often say it’s too expensive, or that they’re too extreme, or that they’re not politically viable. The facts show the opposite is true, though. Inaction will be more expensive than action, scientists are clear that we need urgent action to avert utter catastrophe, and bold climate policy is popular. This builds the idea of the climate crisis as an economic, scientific, and political issue. And of course, it is all of those things.
But it’s also a moral issue. As Eric Holthaus wrote last year, “climate change is about how we treat each other.” World leaders have a moral obligation to seriously contend with the climate crisis, because if they don’t, millions more people will die and suffer due to poverty, food insecurity, and increasing instability.
Greta consistently evokes that idea as do other youth leaders. At Davos, she asked powerful attendees to “act as if [they] loved their children,” and she’s previously told world leaders they have a “moral responsibility” to quickly enact meaningful change.
According to that recent study, that moral frame is exactly what the climate conversation needs. In fact, it says that “teaching moral implications of fossil fuel use” is one of the six “social tipping interventions” that could help ensure we get off fossil fuels globally by 2050. The researchers put it up there with building carbon-neutral cities, divesting from fossil fuels, incentivizing decentralized energy and removing fossil fuel subsidies, increasing climate change education, and providing information about fossil fuel emissions.
“The extraction and use of fossil fuels out of line with the Paris Climate Agreement targets is arguably immoral, as it would cause widespread grave and unnecessary harm,” the study authors wrote. “The impact of greenhouse gas emissions disproportionately affects the most vulnerable social groups, such as women and children. It also affects the well-being of future human generations and causes many direct negative health effects.”
The study also cites historical precedent showing how changing moral codes can change human behavior on a large scale. The authors say those changing codes played a big role in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in the 1800s. As public figures and the general public increasingly realized that slavery was immoral, they pressured public officials more strongly to make changes. In the context of the climate crisis we better be clear about who’s acting immorally, and what that means.
“Moralizing” the climate crisis is often framed under the auspices of individual action. That puts the weight on individuals to make more moral choices, like adopting a vegan diet or driving an electric car. While those choices are undeniably good from a climate perspective, they’re not nearly sufficient to address the scope of the crisis. And more importantly, they’re not inherently immoral, particularly for people who may not have a better option. A study from last year warns against the “trap of moralization,” showing it’s classist to moralize because the “majority of sustainable consumers are middle and upper class, educated and white individuals.”
And yes, shaming people for their individual actions is classist. It’s also useless, because though middle and upper class folks might be more likely to buy a product that’s covered in green branding, richer folks undeniably have bigger carbon footprints than poorer ones (and, cruelly, poor people often suffer more because of the climate crisis despite contributing very little to it).
That’s what made this year’s Davos conference’s attempts at sustainability so mind-bogglingly frustrating. Serving only vegetarian snacks for one day and projecting images of endangered turtles on the walls does very little to change the carbon footprints of people who arrived to the conference in private jets and gas-guzzling luxury cars. But more importantly, it does nothing to address the ways many of those attendees, like the fossil fuel executives, bankers, and government officials profit from climate devastation. They’re continuing to expand the fossil fuel industry, and that is what’s actually immoral.
We can’t rely on those actors to choose to change their business models and forgo profits out of the goodness of their hearts. And we shouldn’t expect individuals alone—especially those with less means—to take up the weight of system change by making “moral” choices.
As Ryan Cooper recently wrote in The Week, “[t]axes on the rich will have to go up drastically, both to cut the vast carbon emissions of the oligarch class and to fund a crash decarbonization program around the world. Regulations of all kinds will need to be made drastically more stringent.”
Those regulations will have to end the fossil fuel industry. That would make a lot of executives unhappy. But it’s the only possible moral thing to do.