The Value of a Whale: A Report on Green Capitalism and the Challenge to Resolve the Climate Crisis in the U.N.
The question is borderline obscene, and appears to be aboutwhales whose worth supersedes the human impulse to quantify. Yet it is one which has been seriously considered by economists in an effort to convince governments and corporations to value wildlife. The Value of a Whale is an expose on the logic of green capitalism such as putting a dollar value on cetaceans and carbon offsets to financial products.
The way in which I define it is a working definition. It addresses a phenomenon we’re seeing in the US and in the UK where the corporate sector and financial firms have realized overt climate denialism and obstruction is not a viable strategy, so they’re slowly transitioning toward trying to shape and control climate policy.
There are two core tenets of green capitalism I identify. The first is that it’s an attempt to resolve the climate crisis in a way that minimizes disruption to our existing ways of organizing the economy, to existing distributions of wealth and power. There are still opportunities for profit-making in a decarbonized future, so the second tenet is to pursue it in a way that makes sure. The green capitalist framework is more about making sure that we can transition to electric vehicles when we stop using fossil fuel-driven cars than it is about making sure that private companies make a lot of money.
I’d been working in the climate and finance civil society space for several years, and I started out at a totally nonpolitical watchdog company that helps financial firms understand how they should align their portfolios with the goals of the Paris Agreement. I ultimately came out of that experience feeling very cynical about whether that type of approach will actually deliver any kind of material change. I liked the experience of crawling in the heads of people working in finance and trying to understand how they understand the problem. That’s what the book tries to do.
I first met Thunberg in the middle of that maelstrom, when she came to New York in 2019 by boat to help stage two large climate strikes as bookends to the U.N.’s climate week. A lot has changed over time, and again, a lot hasn’t. Now, Thunberg is 20 years old. Almost 90 percent of the world’s emissions are accounted for by countries. The amount of fossil fuel being used is a long way down from 40 gigatons if you include methane. Current policies still point to a global average temperature rise above three degrees Celsius this century, more than double the more ambitious goals enshrined by the Paris agreement in 2015. And now Thunberg has published her third book, called “The Climate Book,” a curated tour of the state of the emergency and how to think about it from more than 100 contributors. (I wrote an essay for it drawing lessons from the experience of the pandemic.)
I was fascinated by the cumulative impact of the data, cross-cultural reflections, and paths for step-by-step change when I read The Climate Book over a period of weeks.
The world has a chance to have a reasonable chance of limiting global temperature rise according to the Paris Agreement, but the steps needed to do so need to be taken without delay. The document is to keep the temperature under 2 degrees Celsius.
If you think the rich nations of the world are making real progress towards achieving limits on global warming, think again. The professor of energy and climate change at the Universities of Manchester, Bergen and Parma states in a essay that wealth should eliminate fossil fuels by around 2030 for a chance of 1.5C. We are where we are precisely because for thirty years we’ve favoured make-believe over real mitigation.”
Anderson says that it is possible to make-believe. In her own chapter, journalist Alexandra Urisman Otto describes her investigation into Swedish climate policy, specifically its net zero target for 2045. She discovered a discrepancy between the official number of greenhouse gases and the actual amount. That lower, official figure leaves out “emissions from consumption and the burning of biomass,” which means the target is way off, she writes. If all the countries were to off by that much, the world’s temperature would go up by 2.5 to 3C.
What does that mean when it comes to emissions from consumption? “emissions from consumption” is a term used by John Barrett and Alice Garvey that means emissions are allocated to the consumer, not the producer. Because industrial production is often outsourced to developing economies, in a world where climate justice were front and center, the consumer country (in this example, Sweden) would take the burden of lessening the emissions from consumption.
International aviation and shipping aren’t typically accounted for in national emissions targets, policies, and carbon budgets, so it’s a significant complicating factor in this disturbing picture.
One urgent goal, then, is transparency in climate-emission figures. Beyond that, Thunberg says, distribution of climate budgets fairly across countries of the world must be a priority. Policies aren’t likely to succeed without climate justice. The point of the book’s subsection, “We aren’t all in the same boat”, is brought to life by it.
The communities most devastated by climate change are mostly poor people of colour, according to Saleemul Huq, director of the Bangladeshi international center for climate change. Huq emphasizes that Bangladeshi citizens don’t need to be seen as passive victims. In the global north, preparation for climate disasters is not usually done in this way. For example, “An elderly widow living alone will have two children from the high school assigned to go and pick her up” in case of hurricane or other emergency.
What to do around the world? First, we can hold industrial and corporate interests accountable and push back on their messages placing the burden solely on the individual, a tactic that allows the worst of the status quo carbon-emissions activities to continue.
Beyond this, it’s not enough “to become vegetarian for one day a week, offset our holiday trips to Thailand or switch our diesel SUV for an electric car,” as Thunberg puts it. It’s an example of greenwashing on the planet today, says the activist, even though recycling can lead to feel-good moments. Even the 9% of plastic that does get recycled ends up (after one or two cycles) dumped or burned.
Thunberg herself has given up flying. Frequent flying is the most climate-destructive individual activity you can engage in. Though she writes that lowering her personal carbon footprint isn’t her specific goal in sailing (instead of flying) across the Atlantic — she hopes to convey the need for urgent, collective behavioral change. “If we do not see anyone else behaving as if we are in a crisis, then very few will understand that we actually are in a crisis,” she writes.
Social norms can and can’t change. That’s our greatest source of hope, but only if climate justice is front and center at every step.
Animals’ Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity (with an Appendix by Barbara J. King)
Barbara J. King is an emerita at William & Mary. Animals’ Best Friends: Putting Compassion to Work for Animals in Captivity is her seventh book. Find her on social media.