Can the world afford to prevent climate change?
by John J. Berger
Glaring income inequality in the United States, and the social injustice that stems from it, are tightly intertwined with the nation’s failure to adopt a bold climate protection plan commensurate with today’s climate perils.
Without the enormous disparities in income and wealth in America today, ordinary people would not experience so much economic hardship and frustration in struggling for economic advancement. They would thus have far less cause to resist national policies aimed at allocating a small percentage of GDP to climate protection.
The wealth held by the United States in 2010 amounted to some $54 trillion, but 95 percent of this was controlled by just the top 20 percent of all Americans. The bottom 80 percent therefore held only 5 percent of the nation’s assets. Worse, the nation’s wealthiest 1 percent owns 42 percent of the entire nation’s wealth, including 50 percent of all stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. The bottom half of all Americans, however, owns a mere half of 1 percent of those investments.
With concentrated wealth goes concentrated political power, and the ability to create laws and policies that further enhance one’s economic stature. Those who benefit most from the unequal division of income and wealth usually have no appetite for challenging government policies that subsidize and hence entrench the fossil fuel economy with favorable tax treatment, in turn prolonging the climate crisis.
While the super wealthy would bridle at the suggestion, raising tax rates on these individuals and on wealthy corporations would not only be equitable but would make a massive infusion of capital available for investment in transforming the nation’s energy sector and developing substitutes for fossil fuels.
Our Spending Priorities
Even without reversing the egregious pattern of income and wealth inequality in America, the nation could still afford the transition to clean energy vital to protecting the climate. We would just have to reorder our priorities, for example by eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and trimming military spending.
The United States spent more on military activities in 2011 than the next 13 countries combined, not even including an additional $178 billion spent for “defense-related” outlays. U.S. military spending alone accounts for 41 percent of the entire world’s annual military budget of $1.7 trillion.
Having such an enormous military apparatus has in the past fostered overconfidence and the precipitous use of military force in costly, ill-advised campaigns. The Iraq War, for example, a war of choice rather than necessity, killed hundreds of thousands of people, cost the United States well over …
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