Global climate change cannot be tackled without addressing economic inequality

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In early April, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration reached a grim record of 421 parts per million, or PPM. Scientists consider 350 PPM as the threshold for habitability on Earth. (In the 1950s, we were at 315 PPM.)

However, the causes are not evenly distributed. According to the United Nations, the richest 1% of the global population generates two times the emissions of the bottom 50%. Some 37% of emissions between 1990 and 2015 are attributed to the global top 5%.

In 2018, Berkeley City Council passed the first climate emergency declaration in California under the leadership of then-City Councilmember Cheryl Davila. We have since been engaged in transitioning Berkeley to a fossil-free future — passing the United States’ first natural gas infrastructure ban in construction, moving our city to 100% renewable energy, phasing out our municipal fossil fuel fleet by 2030, investing millions in affordable transit-oriented housing and directing millions more in funding to our desperately under-resourced transit, bicycle and micro-mobility network through the tax on Uber and Lyft trips approved by Berkeley voters in 2020.

Despite these exciting advances, I am haunted by an overwhelming sense that we must do more.

Consider for a moment this astounding fact: More than half of total carbon emissions since 1751 were emitted over the last 30 years.

We need a paradigm shift. Wealthy cities and nations need to transition toward zero-carbon economies this decade. It is abundantly clear that we are going to need to equitably adopt and implement fundamental shifts to our economic system, not just work within the current one. Fortunately, concepts such as “degrowth” and “doughnut economics” espouse ways of living within ecological limits without sacrificing human happiness and needs.

As tempting as it may be to merely replace every single fossil fuel-powered vehicle, home and power plant with a clean version over the next decade while simultaneously maintaining our economic trajectory, this idea likely won’t work: “Green growth” is a trap. As economic anthropologist Jason Hickel notes, it is likely impossible to “stay within safe carbon budgets while growing (gross domestic product) at the same time.” Economic growth historically begets increased energy use — something we simply cannot afford to do if we seek to rapidly decarbonize existing energy use with renewables in order to meet scientific targets.

Indeed, we must evolve beyond economic growth for growth’s sake — measured by GDP — by pursuing a more ecologically sustainable measure of meeting human needs. As Robert F. Kennedy once said, “The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. … It measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

We also can’t rely on the myth that individual choice or wealth will create a green revolution. Those of us fortunate enough to be early adopters of green technologies cannot leave everyone else behind. I am spending this spring approaching environmental challenges through an equity lens. I and Mayor Jesse Arreguín are asking the City Council to create and capitalize a climate equity action fund that provides green transportation and building improvement and transportation incentives (such as electric bike and mobility rentals and purchases, heat pumps, induction stoves and smart thermostats and plugs) for lower-income renters and homeowners.

My office is also asking that $1.5 million in the general fund be used for transitioning buildings to green technologies when they are sold, when an appliance breaks or when remodels take place. This pilot program would support good jobs, including unionized contractors, workforce development and local hire requirements — all part of a broader, just transition that uplifts workers and residents.

I know full well that we will not be able to achieve these targets alone without state and federal help. But I believe strongly in making our own political reality. If we fund climate and equity goals, we can leverage resources from other levels of government to make substantive changes. We can also inspire other cities to follow suit. Our future depends on it.

Thinking outside the GDP box sounds scary, but it doesn’t have to be. It means recognizing and living within ecological limits, focusing on equity and reinvesting capital into productive enterprises. These changes promote human needs instead of merely profit and unbridled consumption. Let’s expand our minds, quality of life and the health of our environment, not our use of resources.

If you are interested in finding ways to get involved and support this movement, sign up for our newsletter dedicated to Berkeley climate organizing and legislative issues.

Kate Harrison is the City Council member for Downtown Berkeley and recently passed the nation’s first ban on natural gas in new buildings.