Blog Action Day: Climate change, economic growth, and poverty

Written by adam


> “It’s a cruel thing to say…but if we are looking at a slowdown in the economy, there will be less fossil fuels burning, so for the climate it could be an advantage.”

> — Paul J. Crutzen, winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on the depletion of the ozone layer

Some see a silver lining in the financial crisis. An economic contraction may not save the climate, they argue, but will perhaps at least grant it a reprieve.

There are two versions of this argument. The softer version notes that reduced economic activity will mean reduced energy consumption, which necessarily entails a slowdown in carbon emissions. Although not by itself a fix, the slower pace of emissions might buy some time to implement broader strategies for fighting climate change.

The stronger version, not always stated explicitly, holds that the financial crisis represents a failure of capitalism itself. With the old economic order discredited, now is the time to rethink the growth-at-all-costs mentality that has put such strain on our natural resources and brought us to the present environmental crisis point.

The first argument is merely shortsighted. The second is more fundamentally misguided. Although we surely do need to create a sustainable economy that isn’t based on resource extraction, growth per se shouldn’t be made into the villain.

An economic slowdown almost certainly will, of course, result in a drop in emissions, or at least a reduction from what would have otherwise happened. The resulting environmental benefit is likely to marginal. An American economy that is 2% or even 10% smaller still represents an enormous amount of fossil fuel use (as well as an enormous amount of hardship).

Worse, the resulting emissions drop won’t last. Solving climate change requires a fundamental transformation of the economy, not a fiddling around at the edges. An economic slowdown pushes that transformation further into the future. Renewable energy projects go unbuilt for lack of financing. Markets for electric vehicles wither. Political will for comprehensive climate legislation dries up. International coalitions fray.

As for the argument that economic growth is responsible for the climate predicament — this is both true and somewhat irrelevant. We can’t rewind the tape; we can merely lock in the present set of choices. Nor should we want to oppose growth. The places that are presently growing most rapidly and will place the greatest new strains on the environment are also places that remain quite poor. Countries like China and India and Brazil aren’t about to forfeit their aspirations. We shouldn’t expect them to.

The notion that we need to abandon growth echoes the dangerous fallacy that conservation — a voluntary reduction in consumption — is the only true solution to climate change. Conservation is a real and important part of the puzzle, but conservation works mostly by relieving pressure on our natural systems while the necessary work of transformation takes place. We don’t need simply to do less of what we’re doing now. We need to do things differently.

Unfortunately, a financial crisis makes this project harder. It revives the stale opposition of the economy and the environment, a standoff that the environment will always lose. With effort and ingenuity, we’ll break the link between economic growth and environmental degradation. It’s a long-term project, and one best undertaken from a position of strength.

Periods of economic upheaval can open up opportunities for bold policy innovation, and it remains possible that we’re entering such a time. Perhaps we’ll see a flowering in areas like transit and urban planning that improve welfare while also reducing our impact on the climate. Perhaps the needed economic stimulus will come in the form of massive investment in green infrastructure and cleaner forms of energy. There may yet be a silver lining to the problems we face. But we’re a long way off from finding them, and the economic crisis is not, in itself, good news for the environment.

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  1. ioni

    Seriously, people, I do not believe that using blogs we can fight something as big as poverty. How on Earth writing about it helps people who starve? Who die because they cannot afford water? Who are scared that the crisis that is upon us will break down their lives?
    I just do not understand all that hype – but I do not mind to participate, not in the least. Although I do believe that “writing about poverty” is not the same as “fighting poverty itself”.
    And even though I believe that poverty of mind (if I use the terms correctly) is way worse – since this is the only reason there is technical, monetary poverty in the world.

  2. michael

    …in poor economic times, folks do cut back…tune ups on autos and home heating systems is one area folks skimp on during an economic slow down. This is but one example of this kind, and so, I agree; change from a position of strength…but change!

  3. Aaron

    “The first argument is merely shortsighted. The second is more fundamentally misguided. Although we surely do need to create a sustainable economy that isn

  4. Anonymous

    Oh so easy to say!
    But sure it would be hard to people to cut back on everything, when used to have all…
    And, Aaron, we have to rethink the whole model the economy (and I mean world economy) is working. But we probably are too optimistic if we can say that it is easily eachieved.

  5. Ken

    Adam –
    There are two ways to slow the economy – 1) unintentionally (via the business cycle, what we’re seeing right now, the topic of this post), with resulting reduced consumption, tougher financing for renewable energy, and legitimately harder times for many people. 2) intentionally, through massive reorganization of our economic system (something often called the ‘steady state economy’). Lots of ways to do this – green tax shifts, production of highly durable products, localization of economies, working fewer hours per person but increasing overall levels of employment. Needless to say revolutionary ideas.
    Herman Daly, an eminent ecological economist and master of colorful analogies, likens the difference between these two to trying to stop an airplane (that’s designed to move forward) in mid-flight, with predictable consequences. What you need is a different machine, a helicopter, that’s designed to hover. Simply putting the brakes on our current economy won’t produce sustainability, just some reduced consumption and a lot of suffering. Converting the airplane into a helicopter takes more than just tinkering at the edges, which I think Adam gets at in his post.
    Can/should we keep growing? Growth that barrels past ecological thresholds (atmospheric CO2 levels, localized air and water pollution, irreversible biodiversity loss, limits to fossil fuel supplies) obviously has disastrous consequences. Can we design a growth economy that respects these limits? If so, I’m all for it (though it would probably look like the steady state economy in many ways anyhow). So far the evidence is highly suspect that growth truly leads to environmental improvement (the so-called “environmental Kuznets curve” for those interested). Of course parts of the developing world do need growth, but if the global economy stops growing we’re into the tricky and politicized world of wealth redistribution.

  6. Aaron

    I hope you were not thinking I was saying that a complete restructuring of our economy would be easy. It probably will not even happen this downturn around. The most I am hoping for is that we begin to stem the permanent damage we are already doing to the planet and its inhabitants (1 in 4 mammals predicted endangered). Continuous growth is impossible in a finite world. Anything impossible will prove itself to be impossible. I think we are seeing a time of extremely accelerated social evolution due to globalization and the incredible technological advancements that made globalization possible. This likely will mean more frequent/intense destabilization. Hopefully we figure it all out without biospheric disaster, or another dark age. I think most likely we (humanity) will go through a series of stall tactics, avoiding a large scale solution, until stalling takes us no further. Americans are still taken in by “Drill, Baby, Drill.”

  7. dosomegreen

    We wonder if the money spent on the US bailout should have gone towards creating more jobs, and that perhaps a large number of those new jobs could have been in the newly identified “green collar” sector? What do you think? Please share your opinions with us on today’s blog entry. Taking your thoughts into consideration, we wonder if the environment will take more of a hit during these harsh economic times because of the fact that buying organic and environmentally friendly products usually costs more than the old environmentally-harsh stand-bys. Thoughts? Please feel free to link to your blog from ours. We are always looking for different perspectives on environmentalism, as the point of our site is to expand thinking on all things green.

  8. Sandy

    @Aaron & Ken:
    Of course, it is out of question that we stop development and growth. What we can and should do is grow sustainably.
    “Some things are worth more not harvested, processed, and sold; and some services are limited or hurt by the emphasis on

  9. Anonymous

    Sandy –
    Let’s not confuse development and growth – growth being the physical expansion of the economy and development being improvement in the quality of the economy.
    Tim Jackson, in the current issue of New Scientist ( has a great piece on why the growth mantra is so entrenched, and more importantly why the numbers on “sustainable growth” just don’t add up, no matter how much we may want them to.
    Of course as you point out building strong carbon price signals into the economy will be a key addition towards improving its sustainability, no matter what the growth rate. Along with carbon, markets need a lot of other signals to “tell the truth” about the costs of nonsustainable water use, agricultural practices, resource extraction, and the like. So a carbon tax/cap and trade system is clearly only the first (but important!) step of many needed to move toward a more sustainable economy.

  10. veektor

    Capitalism has its faults, of course, but the environmental (or humanitarian) devastation in the former Soviet Union or China would appear to dwarf anything that capitalist greed has done.
    Intelligent growth may be the answer, but whose intelligence? I think we need to work a bit harder on this one.