WYSO

Brexit, Inequality, Climate Change and Energy

Feb 3, 2017

The 2016 presidential campaign often focused on immigration issues, but there was very little talk about energy or climate change.  Sustainability commentator Bob Brecha thinks we should be talking about all of these issues, and tying them together when trying to come up with solutions.

The victory of Donald Trump and of the Brexit campaign separating Great Britain from the European Union had several things in common.  Both are warning signs that our political and economic systems haven’t been working very well for a lot of citizens.  This is especially unsettling because in the  future  there will be more global disruption due to climate change, growing inequality and conflicts over access to energy and water resources needed for sustainable development.

Citizens around the world are afraid.  The details differ from country to country, but societies are changing dramatically.  And the message is always the same, whether directed toward bureaucrats in Brussels and Washington, or against immigrants, or highly-educated “elites.” People are saying, “We don’t feel secure about our future, even though we’ve played by the rules as we understood them.”  Throw into this mix a demagogue or two, and the situation can become dangerous.

Growing economic and political inequality throughout industrialized societies helps explain part of the tension.  Ten percent of the world’s population is pretty wealthy, and another 75% are living in poverty.  Thomas Piketty talked about  this in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. A small fraction of the population has tilted the playing field dramatically in their own direction.  Some political parties were traditionally aligned  with workers and social justice, like  Social Democrats in Germany, Labour in England and the Democrats here.  These parties gave up on these programs in the 1980s and 1990s, and so citizens hoping for a voice in the political-economic system have found little recourse except to express frustration and voice their fears.

But there’s something else going on that worries me about the future.  Climate change is certain to cause an increase in the number of refugees around the world.  The many asylum seekers coming to Europe over the past two years have caused  resentments to bubble to the surface.  Even in countries that initially welcomed migrants, limits of willingness to deal with the issue were quickly reached.  In Great Britain during the Brexit campaign, “Leavers” were able to confuse refugees from Syria or Turkey with migrant workers from within the European Union’s borders.  In the U.S., Donald Trump effectively used fear of nearly non-existent immigration by Muslims from Syria together with perpetual fear of supposed streams of Mexicans coming across the border.

Climate change will increasingly have real costs to societies around the world, often for those with the least ability to adapt to changes or disasters. So, what will happen in a world of increasingly severe impacts from climate change? What happens if  millions of people are forced to become climate refugees over the next decades?  There is already some evidence of climate impacts driving part of the conflict in Syria. 

Our political systems have not shown a great deal of foresight in the current crises.  Trusting in free-markets and globalization to be the the driving force behind our socioeconomic system has had destructive consequences. World population continues to grow, and we can expect stressed  populations  to move to those countries where adaptation is possible.  That means, to those countries that have built up their own high standard of living and resilient infrastructure.

There’s a way forward that would address many of these challenges.  It could also  lead to a more equitable, just and sustainable future.  Access to energy leads to an increase in well-being in developing countries. Three-quarters of the world’s population has too little energy.  That is, there is not only a wealth gap, but also an energy gap between haves and have-nots.  The goal of  helping developing countries get increased energy access from carbon-free renewable sources helps meet both development and climate change prevention goals.    The combination of fewer negative effects from climate change and higher levels of well-being for the majority of the world’s people will also help minimize refugee populations. 

It seems that the only viable solution to all of these challenges is for wealthier countries to work with developing countries to enable quick access to renewable energy, and to do so in a spirit of cooperation.  This proposal might be idealistic, and it is certainly challenging.  But it seems clear that  we have to  try something different than what we’ve been doing.  There’s a potential solution at hand in the form of renewable energy for all. It would be shortsighted on our part, not to take advantage of this opportunity.

Bob Brecha is a professor of Physics and Renewable and Clean Energy at the University of Dayton, and Research Director at UD's Hanley Sustainability Institute.  Follow him on Twitter: @BobBrecha