What If Inaction On Climate Change Is Deliberate?

We believe that climate change represents one of the greatest moral, economic and environmental challenges of our age.

Australia now stands ready to assume its responsibility in responding to this challenge – both at home and in the complex negotiations which lie ahead across the community of nations.

For Australians, climate change is no longer a distant threat. It is no longer a scientific theory. It is an emerging reality. In fact, what we see today is a portent of things to come.

In Australia, our inland rivers are dying; bushfires are becoming more ferocious, and more frequent; and our unique natural wonders – the Great Barrier Reef, Kakadu, our rainforests – are now at risk.

This will sound familiar to many of our Pacific neighbours who are experiencing the impacts of rising sea levels, more frequent severe weather events and diminishing access to fresh water. And regrettably it is now an increasingly familiar story across the globe, as reflected in the critical conclusions of the Fourth IPCC Report released last month.

Climate change is the defining challenge of our generation. Our choice will impact all future generations. This is, therefore, a problem which requires a global solution. It requires a multilateral solution. Unilateral action is not enough. We must all share the burden.

– Kevin Rudd, in his 2007 address to the UN.

Climate change is indeed the defining issue of our times. But the Rudd government could not pass an emissions trading scheme, leaving its biggest environmental achievements the establishment of a paltry Renewable Energy Target and some meager R&D funding. Carbon emissions continue to grow despite the effects being felt. Rhetoric is plentiful, but actual action on climate change has been terribly limited. We know the problem, but our response as a species seems to be to just hope it goes away. The typical consensus is that the power of fossil fuel interests, intergovernmental squabbling and short-termism are driving this inaction. Ockham’s razor suggests this is the most likely cause. However, I’d like to examine an alternative hypothesis – what if the rich and powerful see climate change as real, but as a positive for their own economic interests?


Who will be hit hardest by the weather effects of climate change? Poor countries. Which countries are most vulnerable to food insecurity as a result of climate change? Poor countries. So the effects of climate change will disproportionately hit the third world. Even within a rich country, when a disaster hits, the poor are disproportionately affected and often unable to move away to less disaster-prone environs. Sakai et al ‘s 2012 paper looked at the impact of Typhoon Milenyo in the Phillipines and found that while the poor households were hit most severely, rich households actually had an increase in welfare resulting from price changes caused by the typhoon.


When the world’s poorest get poorer and have no alternative, what will they do? They run, seeking refuge in the richer countries which have not been hit so hard. 22 million people are already displaced by climate or weather-related diasasters every year, and as the impacts of climate change expand, this number will only grow. These folks will flee with only the clothes on their backs, desperate for work to afford the essentials and with no understanding of the labour laws within their new homes. They will be a fresh reserve army of labour for employers to exploit, hurting both their own conditions and those of competing local workers. This influx of cheap labour in developed nations will drive down wages for local workers, particularly those less educated or skilled, thus hitting the poor in rich countries as well. The wage reduction will be a boon for business profitability so much like with Typhoon Milenyo, the poor suffer while the rich benefit.


The US Defense Department’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review suggests that climate change’s ability to devastate infrastructure as well as its ability to exacerbate water and food scarcity is a threat multiplier that can exacerbate other stressors and contribute to terrorism and other forms of violence. If these desperate folks were to lash out at the rich countries who condemned them by refused to act on climate change, I’d understand that. But as we’ve seen in the War On Terror since 9/11, this would provide substantial opportunities for the ghouls who make up the Military-Industrial Complex. From imperialism and war profiteering to private security services, this has provided plenty of opportunities for an amoral business to profit and would again in the event of climate change induced terrorism. Terrorism also provides a great opportunity to clamp down on undesirables and fan the flames of racial resentment to disguise an increasing class divide.


Who holds the levers of power, having the most influence on public policy and thus inaction on climate change? Gilens and Page’s 2014 study found that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US public policy, but that average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no influence. So for all intents and purposes, economic elites and business interests control whether action is taken on climate change. As these folks have influence, they can lobby government to protect their own vested interests, such as with localised protection against weather events. They are located (practically, if not legally for tax purposes) within rich countries, so they will be sheltered from the worst effects. They would benefit from wage reductions across the board and the opportunities for lucrative rebuilding contracts as well as from potential ramping up of national security operations and the profitable opportunities therein.


So why wouldn’t economic elites and business interests want climate change to happen? Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine demonstrates the way in which past disasters have been used to further their economic interests and it seems plausible that the same mechanisms are in place here. If this is the case then the ability to keep pumping out their existing fossil fuel products is just a bonus, a new gilded age is the goal.


I’m not quite willing to commit whole-heartedly to a theory of this conspiratorial nature, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for further evidence.