Climate Change, Capitalism and Sustainable Wellbeing

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* Book: Heat, Greed and Human Need. Climate Change, Capitalism and Sustainable Wellbeing. Ian Gough. Elgar, 2017



From the publisher:

"This book builds an essential bridge between climate change and social policy. Combining ethics and human need theory with political economy and climate science, it offers a long-term, interdisciplinary analysis of the prospects for sustainable development and social justice. Beyond ‘green growth’ (which assumes an unprecedented rise in the emissions efficiency of production) it envisages two further policy stages vital for rich countries: a progressive ‘recomposition’ of consumption, and a post-growth ceiling on demand. An essential resource for scholars and policymakers."

From the author:

"Climate change cannot be the basic cause of poverty, ill-health, unmet basic needs and fragile livelihoods; these have existed throughout human history. But the hazards of uncontrolled climate change constitute an epochal ‘threat multiplier’. It will make the pursuit of economic and social needs and rights more difficult and, if global warming exceeds a threshold around 2 °C, then it will overwhelm all attempts to eradicate poverty, let alone provide all peoples with an acceptable level of security and a flourishing life.

The goal must be to respect biophysical boundaries while at the same time pursuing sustainable wellbeing: that is, wellbeing for all current peoples and for future generations. An acceptable and sufficient level of human wellbeing also means paying attention to its distribution between peoples. Issues of equity and social justice are central. The social dimension of climate change thus refers to both the average level of human wellbeing in any specific dimension and its just distribution. Both, together with respecting biophysical boundaries, are necessary for ‘sustainable wellbeing’.

In summary, the pursuit of wellbeing and social justice is inadequate if it is at the expense of the biosphere and future generations. At the same time, the pursuit of human wellbeing for some while also respecting planetary limits is unacceptable if it is at the expense of global justice and the poor of the world. Similarly, the pursuit of social justice within planetary limits is inadequate if justice is understood solely in procedural terms, such as greater civic rights and Western democracy, while ignoring more material aspects of wellbeing.

This book focuses on the interrelation between three goals: wellbeing and social justice within planetary boundaries. It considers what might be done to advance all three together."



1. The Social Dimensions of Climate Change

2. Human needs and sustainable wellbeing

3. Climate capitalism: emissions, inequality, green growth

4. Sustainable wellbeing, necessary emissions and fair burdens


5. From welfare states to climate mitigation states?

6. Decarbonising the economy and its social consequences

7. Decarbonising consumption: Needs, necessities and eco-social policies

8. Post-growth, redistribution and wellbeing

9. Conclusion: A three-stage transition


From chapter 1:

Climate Adaptation Policy "seeks to lower the risks posed by the consequences of climatic changes. Adaptation policies target the last two rows of the figure to reduce risks to habitats and human wellbeing. Clearly a combination of mitigation and adaptation interventions will be necessary to forestall harmful impacts on human populations.

In between the two there is a potential third domain of interventions designed to directly target cumulative GHG concentrations, global temperature rise and regional climate change. This is the arena of geo-engineering, deliberate large-scale interventions in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change, for example by reflecting part of the sun’s energy back into space or directly removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Geo-engineering is beginning to enter policy debate, but the current consensus is that it is fraught with unforeseeable and potentially catastrophic consequences and I do not discuss it further here. ‘We should remain under no illusion that if we have to resort to these kinds of technologies, then humankind is in a mess’ (Berners-Lee and Clark 2013; cf. Royal Society 2010).


Mitigation plays a central role in Article 2 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which aims for ‘stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system’. The Copenhagen Accord was endorsed by 167 countries, agreeing that the safest maximum amount that global temperatures should be allowed to rise above the pre-industrial level is 2 °C. To achieve this, the Paris agreement in December 2015 calls for zero net anthropogenic GHG emissions to be reached during the ‘second half of the 21st century’. In addition nations at Paris agreed to drive efforts to limit the temperature increase to no more than 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels (UNFCCC 2015).

This is a safer but dauntingly ambitious goal. According to Lord Stern (2015), to achieve (only) a 50:50 chance of avoiding global warming exceeding 2 °C by the end of the century, and taking population growth into account, global emissions must be cut from around 7 tonnes CO2e1 per person per year now to no more than 2 tonnes by 2050 – a revolutionary downshift of 3.5 times. But, if output per person continues to grow at its present rate (roughly trebling by 2050), then global emissions per unit of output must fall by a factor of 7–8 times by 2050 – as I write now only 33 years away.

Moreover, the risks of modelling a 50:50 chance are self-evident. Bill McKibben (2012) has taken to task other models using a ‘reasonable 20%’ risk, pointing out that ‘reasonable’ in this case means ‘one chance in five, or somewhat worse odds than playing Russian roulette with a six-shooter’. A 50:50 chance is like playing Russian roulette with bullets in three chambers.

The range of potential mitigation interventions is enormous. A short list would include: reducing fossil fuel extraction; pricing carbon; fostering renewable energy technology, alternative fuels and alternative transport systems and mobility structures; investing in new technology and energy efficiency; encouraging net forestation, changes in rural land use and agricultural practices (management of croplands, grazing lands and soil restoration); managing urban forms and land use; building infrastructure and spatial planning; designing buildings for energy efficiency; and changing consumer behaviour, lifestyle and culture (IPCC 2014c). Some of these will be encountered and analysed in this book.

Taking just the first of the list above, research by Carbon Tracker estimates that the world could emit about 900 gigatonnes (Gt) (billions of tonnes) of CO2 between 2000 and 2050 (of which 17 years have now elapsed) and still have a ‘reasonable’ chance of avoiding 2 °C warming (Ranger and Ward 2013). These figures are far lower than present-day estimates of the carbon embedded in usable reserves – some 2860 Gt, implying that two-thirds of present reserves of coal, oil and gas cannot be mined. This has fostered a new approach to carbon mitigation: to ‘keep the oil in the soil’ (Berners-Lee and Clark 2013).


Adaptation is defined by the IPCC as ‘the process of adjustment to actual or expected climate and its effects’ in both human and natural systems (IPCC 2014c). This process of adjustment differs according to regions and includes: the evolution of agricultural practices adapted to temperature; agroforestry to manage wildfires; land-use changes and settlement relocation; increased efficiency in water management systems; infectious disease control; wetland restoration and the maintenance of coastal landforms; enhanced monitoring, regulation and early warning systems for extreme weather events; stronger flood defences; the development of sustainable cities; and so on. This list excludes social adaptation measures such as building social capital and more resourceful communities able to withstand climate impacts.

An important distinction between the two policy domains must be noted here (Kolstad et al. 2014): mitigating GHG emissions is predominantly a ‘global public good’, whereas adaptation is more often a private or national good. Gains from adaptation (such as changing a crop to one more heat tolerant, or building flood defences) tend to be realised by the same parties or territories that are incurring the costs. There may be externalities involved, but these tend to be more localised and contemporaneous.2

The case of GHG mitigation is quite different: emissions in any geographical space will affect the global concentration everywhere. There are thus ‘collective action problems’. ‘Incentives for individuals or countries to unilaterally reduce emissions are considerably reduced; free-riding on the actions of others is a dominant strategy … and lack of coordination yields insufficient mitigation’ (IPCC 2014a). Elinor Ostrom’s (1990) research on common pool resources concludes that efficient environmental management is more likely where four conditions hold: the environmental problem is visible; cause and effect relations are understood; the problem is reversible; and management results in clear net benefits to key constituencies. For many decades after the scientific community began to chart global warming none of these conditions applied to mitigating climate change, outside a few pioneers. Awareness of the first two is now growing as conditions worsen (Christoff and Eckersley 2013).


Turning to the ‘inner ring’ of Raworth’s (2012) lifebelt, I now summarise international and global efforts to map out the ‘social’ domain. What ‘welfare’ or ‘wellbeing’ consists of is discussed in detail in Chapter 2, but they certainly include concerns with health and survival chances, literacy and learning, access to essential resources and opportunities to participate in social life. The social dimension typically combines two things: a concern with levels of human wellbeing, and a concern with equity and justice – the way that wellbeing is distributed between peoples.

There is clear evidence of improved global wellbeing since the Second World War, as the 2015 Rockefeller Foundation–Lancet Report makes clear (Whitmee et al. 2015):

By most metrics, human health is better today than at any time in history. Life expectancy has soared from 47 years in 1950–1955, to 69 years in 2005–2010 … The total number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen by 0.7 billion over the past 30 years, despite an increase in the total population of poor countries of about 2 billion. This escape from poverty has been accompanied by unparalleled advances in public health, health care, education, human rights legislation, and technological development that have brought great benefits, albeit inequitably, to humanity.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has developed a composite measure, the Human Development Index (HDI), that combines measures of health (life expectancy), learning (literacy and education) and resources to meet other basic needs (the log of GDP per head). This also charts significant improvements across the world, though less so in Africa.

Against this picture of progress, income inequality between countries widened throughout most of the twentieth century as the industrialising West pulled away from the rest of the world. It had also colonised much of that world or exercised economic power to prevent the emergence of serious competition. Only around the turn of the millennium did this trend reverse, when economic growth in the East really took off (Bocchiola 2013). However, since around 1980 inequality has begun to rise within most countries, in some at a rapid rate. This has renewed concerns over equity and justice and slowed down the rate of global average improvement in the HDI – by one-quarter from what it would otherwise be, according to the UNDP (2011).

Global concern with social conditions has taken many forms, including efforts to establish global social rights and agreed development goals. The 1948 UN Declaration on Human Rights comprised a wide range of civil and political rights but also certain economic and social rights: for example the rights to work, education and a standard of living adequate for health and wellbeing, including food, clothing, housing, medical care, necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond people’s control (UN General Assembly 1948). This was followed by a further stream of declarations and conventions, many codified in the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESR), both of which came into force in 1976. Since then, there have been the 1981 International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (ICEDAW), the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child and others. All of these include social and economic rights. However, implementation is soft, to say the least.

In 2000 the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were unanimously agreed by all 189 member states (Hulme and Scott 2010). Eight goals were set with 21 targets – for example to reduce by two-thirds by 2015 the under-five mortality rate; to halve, by 2015, the proportion of people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation – and more than 60 indicators were agreed to chart progress. They amount to ‘a minimum set of global social standards in education, health and poverty alleviation’ (Deacon 2007: 173). The poverty target has been achieved (ten years early) but not that for malnutrition. The gender equality goal was achieved and the education goal narrowly missed. However, the health goals were not met.


The global picture painted so far charts three diverging trends: first, significant progress in some core features of social conditions and human development across the globe; second, rising inequalities; and, third, an as yet uncontrolled accumulation of greenhouse gases that will drive future global warming with significant damaging consequences for habitats and human welfare.

The following questions arise:

● What are the implications of climate change for future human welfare? ● How will the pursuit of climate stability interact with the pursuit of social improvement? ● Can we achieve some combination of equity/justice and sustainability?

These questions lie at the heart of this book." (


A three stage transition

Ian Gough:

“Recomposing consumption in this way would take us a step further towards sustainable wellbeing, beyond green growth. But even taken together I believe the strategies could not reduce emissions in rich countries far or fast enough to achieve a safe climate. I therefore turn in Chapter 8 to post-growth as the only remaining option. It envisages a post-growth steady-state economy, the achievement of which will require a prior degree of negative growth or degrowth in the richest nations. The most realistic policy advanced to achieve this transition is gradually to reduce paid work time, and thus absolute levels of incomes, consumption and emissions. RWT constitutes another piece of the eco-social policy armoury, one that can improve sustainability as well as other dimensions of non-monetary wellbeing and human flourishing.”

But degrowth threatens almost the entire suite of current social policies that support wellbeing in a market economy. All welfare states and social security programmes have been built on, and assume the continuance of, conventional economic growth in GDP. If this is removed their fiscal stability and political legitimacy would be threatened. At the same time lower growth would likely drive up further inequality in wealth and income. In this scenario all varieties of capitalism and all welfare regimes are unsustainable. All have been historically based on a high-energy, high growth economic pathway (Koch and Fritz 2014).

The picture that emerges of a sustainable post-growth welfare system combines top-down and bottom-up mobilisations and action. To spread wealth more evenly through society, a range of radical top-down policies would be needed covering taxation and the ownership of wealth. New forms of public ownership and control would in any case be needed, including socio-natural resources such as energy and water. This could involve some combination of state and common ownership. The idea of the natural commons can be extended to that of a ‘social commons’ in order to protect and extend the inherited suite of social institutions that help maintain the social fabric of modern societies.

Much of this will need to be built up from below by resourceful communities. Preventing harm is arguably most effective when it involves change from the bottom up, with people and organisations becoming more proactive: building up their own immune systems, both literally and metaphorically, so that they become less susceptible to harm; and changing attitudes and capabilities so that they are better able to withstand harm by taking positive actions themselves (Coote 2012a). The unpaid core economy, so important in meeting basic needs and enabling wellbeing to flourish, must now be comprehensively recognised and supported both in economic models and in actual practice.

Taken together, Chapters 6, 7 and 8 amount to a three-stage transitional strategy for sustainable wellbeing: green growth, recomposed consumption, post-growth. The current stage of green growth, driven by rapid decarbonisation and improvements in eco-efficiency of production, is of major importance and drives the post-Paris agenda. It is aligned with core state imperatives in the contemporary world, economic growth and energy security among them. But it cannot be the end goal, since it will be environmentally unworkable and unjust.

Yet, at the same time, post-growth appears to be a political non-starter. ‘An industrial system with reduced material demand is not in any group’s direct interest, although it is essential to human survival’ (Allwood et al. 2017). Too many powerful constituencies, not to speak of consumers and citizens, would be faced with material losses. Dominant interests, institutions and ideologies would be so threatened that the idea appears politically unfeasible. It is for this reason, among others, that I propose an interim strategy to recompose consumption in rich countries towards low-carbon necessities. It would begin to confront hyper-consumption and the ideology of consumer sovereignty. It would provide a route from the impossible present to a possible future.


If a capitalist economy is to evolve that is capable of recomposing consumption (C2) it will arguably need to develop three characteristics: reflexivity, a commitment to prevention, and a capacity to integrate local (bottom-up) and national (top-down) agency. [...]

In my view post-growth is incompatible with any form of capitalism – or at least with capitalism as a global system. If it happens, the process of moving beyond growth could possibly begin in the rich world: these privileged zones might continue to trade with the rest of the world whilst developing a steady-state economy. But ultimately there would likely need to be a move away from global economic integration by free trade, free capital mobility and export-led growth – and toward a more nationalist orientation that seeks to develop domestic production for internal markets as the first option (Daly 1996; Hines 2017).

However, the future may not work out this way: the sequence of transitional stages that I have envisaged may not come about. Failure of climate policy at the global level could see temperatures rising by 3 °C before the end of this century. Then global warming would threaten the core productive capabilities and overwhelm basic institutional preconditions for basic needs and human security. The geographic spread of these effects would place quite different demands on countries according to their spatial location and their prior institutional structures (Buch-Hansen 2014). But it would certainly transform the nature of political economies and state functions across the globe.

Writers such as John Urry (2011) and Peter Christoff (2013) imagine that the failure of transition would bring about fortress states. These would oversee but could not effectively manage survival in a permanent state of emergency. The priority goals would be adaptation to a hotter and more unstable climate, entailing policies to secure and maintain supplies of energy, water and food. The dominant political narrative would be survival and minimal national welfare. The maintenance of borders and social order would require new policing powers. There would be little scope for any kind of welfare state let alone social investment. For the vast majority, opportunities for human flourishing would decline."