This is a guest essay by Tom Athanasiou. Athanasiou is a long-time left green, a former software engineer, a technology critic, and, most recently, a climate justice activist. He is the author of Divided Planet, co-author of Dead Heat, and the director of EcoEquity.This essay is part of a series on climate equity.

Tom Athanasiou"Climate equity" names an almost impossible problem with no easy answers. For one thing, it’s too late for easy answers; the climate crisis is now a climate emergency. For another, this is a world so mired in its own injustice that it can barely move, let alone abruptly change course. It’s a situation with which readers of Jared Diamond’s Collapse will be all too familiar. The only good news is that this time around we know what’s happening. If change comes only when it must, then now’s the time.

The place to start is with the climate emergency. And, sorry, but it is. Even if you place it against other world-class threats — global energy war, billions of people faced with endless humiliation and poverty, extinction and environmental decay on a terrifying scale — the climate emergency quite holds its own. What other word is there when catastrophic levels of sea level rise are now being "locked in," even as global emissions (and, for that matter, the rate of increase of global emissions) are continuing to rise? When the science tells us that, to have a high probability of holding total warming (since pre-industrial) to 2C degrees — a widely endorsed maximum, but by no means a "safe" one — global emissions must peak somewhere around 2015? When the more we overshoot 2C the faster we’ll need to pull down post-peak emissions, if, that is, we want to keep the warming to "manageable" levels? When, to quote John Holdren’s bitterly precise summary, "We already know the future, and it’s some combination of mitigation, adaptation, and suffering"?

In such a situation, we don’t really stand much of a chance of preventing "dangerous climate change," not unless people everywhere give it their best shot. But why would they? That’s the real question here, and the answer has to be short-term as well as long. It has to be that people, all sorts of people, come to know that by acting against climate change they make their lives immediately and palpably better — that emergency mobilization (to use an inescapable military metaphor) makes sense in terms of the daily architecture of ordinary lives.

The "realists" talk about "interests" as if they were simple things, as if the richest and the poorest of a country’s citizens had congruent interests. But it’s easy to see that they don’t, particularly when things go to hell. No matter the emergency, some people live far from the sorrow, while others — imagine being dirt poor in a future Southern megacity — will experience tomorrow’s world pretty much as they experience today’s, as a daily emergency. The difference would be real — think widespread, semi-permanent water shortages — but the suffering, finally, would not be anything new.

Climate equity is just a piece in the puzzle, but it’s a critical piece, and maybe a decisive one. The climate emergency makes even "the crisis of development" and "the crisis of poverty" salient in new ways. What this comes down to, and I hesitate to use this word because it sounds so vague, so abstract and banal, is cooperation. But cooperation, within divided nations and across this divided planet, is a precious thing, and it has no acceptable substitute. We’re either going to act like we’re in this together, or we’re not going to make it.

1. What would climate equity look like? What’s the end state we’re aiming for?

When it comes to the climate emergency, almost everything comes down to moving — decisively, globally, and quickly. But remember, this is "climate equity" we’re talking about, not "climate stabilization." Getting the ball rolling is not the only issue. Climate equity is about transitional justice, about social and technological innovations that are immediately helpful but also prefigurative, steps into a transformation that’s fair enough to be sustainable.

Do we know enough about such a transformation? We do, actually. One of the things we know that it’s not the details that will matter most. What counts is making justice manifest and real. This isn’t simply a world in which global emissions must peak soon, it’s a world of nations, some of them wealthy and some not, all of them divided between rich and poor classes, or if you prefer, people. It’s a world in which billions are either destitute or precariously established on the lower rungs of the "development ladder." It’s a world in which lots of people have lots of problems other than global warming. And still, it’s a world in which emissions must peak soon.

The key, if I may fall back on the language of climate policy, is contriving a “fair global burden sharing system.” Herein lies the rub, because burden sharing means money, as in mandated North-to-South transfers of credit, technology, know-how, and other such "ways and means." So our goal has to be a world, and even an America, where plenty of people know the necessity of such transfers, and can defend their justice, and do everything in their power to get them onto the political agenda. This despite the fact that doing so in the U.S. is going to fantastically hard, because while estimates vary, it’s pretty clear that under any plausibly "fair" burden sharing system, the U.S. would bear a hefty fraction of the burden.

Why? Because global emissions have to drop so soon, and so fast, that billions of people around the world would still be poor when their countries were required, under any plausibly safe global emissions trajectory, to commit to stringent emissions limitations and reductions. And because it will be amazing enough if the world’s governments agree to such commitments under any circumstances, let alone circumstance in which we — the rich who became rich in an "open world" — demand that even developing nations pay the "incremental costs" of moving forward on a carbon-constrained path.

It’s just not going to happen. Nor is technology going to make the "cost issue" moot. Instead, as Sherlock Holmes used to say, at a certain point "the impossible must be true." As in … climate equity! Indeed, there is simply no way to stabilize the climate that does not stipulate, clearly and in advance, that the costs of this stabilization — whatever they turn out to be — must be shared in a manner that is at least "fair enough." Which means we’ve got to figure out what, in a world like this one, fairness can possibly mean. Which, if I may, is what our own work, and in particular our Greenhouse Development Rights framework (PDF), is all about.

This is a long story, but it comes to this: A fair global burden sharing system must take proper account of both historical responsibility and capacity to pay. Both of these, in the end, must be resolved into national obligations, but first they must be properly defined. Their proper definitions have as much to do with economic polarization within countries as they do with the divide between the North and the South. The poor, whether they live in New York or New Delhi, are not responsible, and neither do they have the capacity to pay for the emergency climate stabilization program. Whatever happens, the poor and the innocent — whether they live in rich countries or poor — cannot be hurt by a global drive to stabilize the climate. Ethically, it would be absurd. Politically, it would be an unmitigated and probably fatal disaster.

2. What are the policy steps that start us down the road?

Obviously, this is no end of necessary policy steps. Some of these are already at the center of major battles, and some are more strategic than others. If I had to choose one from the domestic front and one from the international, it would be:

  • Domestically, we must refuse climate legislation that gives away allowances to the corporations. Cap-and-auction, in other words, has to be our movement-wide "no compromise" baseline, and we should actively oppose "realistic compromises" that are based on grandfathering. It’s a scary prospect, and one that the big climate groups will resist, but the alternative — short-term giveaway that starves us of the money needed for Just Transition funds, or for a proper revenue recycling system like the Sky Trust, or for payments to a global adaptation fund (PDF), or indeed for proper renewable energy / energy efficiency leapfrogging assistance — would leave us cursing our stupidity for years to come.
  • Internationally, the path forward is even more daunting. Indeed, a strong argument can be made that, until a serious proposal for a fair global burden-sharing system is actually on the table, it will be extremely difficult to break the international climate policy impasse. In contrast to the conventional wisdom that a post-2012 climate accord must consist primarily of a) stringent emissions reductions for Annex 1 countries, and b) an expanded Clean Development Mechanism and other "non-binding" obligations for non-Annex I countries, we argue that, internationally, the top priority is a transparently fair burden-sharing system that finances both the mitigation and adaptation sides of the necessary emergency program.

Obviously there’s more to say. If you want to hear it, check out EcoEquity, where you’ll find our work and pointers to other interesting stuff as we come across it. The point is that the battle is already raging and that, particularly in the U.S., the "equity perspective" is woefully low-profile. There’s plenty to do.

3. What’s needed, politically speaking, to marshal support for those policy steps?

One thing’s for sure — we have to get past the pseudo-debate that has us facing a either/or choice between the "politics of possibility" and the "politics of fear." We have both, and neither is going away anytime soon.

It’s still physically possible to stabilize the climate, but only just, and only if we solve some of the most difficult political problems of all time. So why would we pretend otherwise? What we’re facing here is a choice, a stark and terrifying choice and indeed one of the most consequential branchpoints (PDF) we’ve ever known. People deserve to know. "Politically speaking," this is about rising to the occasion.

So let’s stop pretending that this is going to be cheap, or win/win all around, or easy. It may be cheap if we’re both smart and lucky, but the signs aren’t looking too good on either side of that equation. Frankly, we have to try to stabilize the climate whether it’s cheap or not. What’s the alternative? Further, just as we can’t save ourselves without technology, so too technology alone isn’t going to save us. We all know this, but we don’t always act like we do. If we did, people would already know what climate equity is all about.

So, politically speaking, it seems to me that the environmental movement is still not ready. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe rich-world greens do understand, or maybe they’re coming to understand, the environmentalism of the poor. Maybe they’ve almost thought this all out, and just need an opportunity to show it, a catalyst. If so, the climate emergency should do just fine.

In the meantime, justice must be made real. We need programs that reduce emissions, sure, but they should also make battered lives better in the process. They should be at least mildly redistributionist, and maybe more so. So, sure, credit card bike stations, but how about free public transport at the same time? How about not just green taxes, but progressive green taxes? How about not just U.S. leadership, but meaningful U.S. leadership, the kind that would begin with the U.S. stepping up to the plate and accepting its international obligations? How about not just a ban on new coal plants, but real transition assistance for the communities that are dependent on coal? And how about, when we talk about the climate crisis, we talk about this transition assistance in the same sentence, the same congressional testimony, the same full-page ads?

All sorts of metaphors for this new politics are flying around. People are talking about a new Apollo Project, a new Marshall Plan, an "environmental war economy," even a "green Manhattan Project." Our favorite image, and the one that we think best names the story of the future, is the "Global New Deal." The New Deal, after all, was a time when capital, though not overthrown, had to be quickly and sharply reoriented, a time when historical necessity demanded solidarity and progressive taxation, a time when denial could no longer be tolerated.

A time like this one.