This difference in inequality explains some of the differences between the U.S. and Europe in greenhouse gas reductions and population health.
Greenhouse gas emissions
U.S. per-capita carbon dioxide (and other GHG) emissions are more than twice (19.4 tons of CO2) those of the European Union (EU) (8.6 tons of CO2). Far more ambitious than the United States, EU nations have agreed that by 2020 they will:
• cut GHG emissions by at least 20 percent below 1990 levels,
• derive 20 percent of energy consumption from renewable resources, and
• reduce by 20 percent primary energy use compared with projected levels.
The EU Emissions Trading System (cap and trade) plays an important role in achieving these goals.
The U.S. has rejected Kyoto protocol limits on greenhouse gas emissions. Skepticism, denial, and special interests block congressional adoption of cap and trade or a carbon tax. Instead, the Obama administration seeks greenhouse gas reductions through the rule making of the Environmental Protection Agency. The 2010 congressional elections suggest that Congress is likely to delay, block, or defund even this more tortured approach to curb GHG emissions.
The U.S. spends about 16 percent of its GDP for health care; Europe about nine percent. Yet, according to the Congressional Budget Office, in 2006 the U.S. ranked 39th for infant mortality, 43rd for adult female mortality, 42nd for adult male mortality, and 36th for life expectancy. In a ranking published in 2008 by the journal Health Affairs, the U.S. placed last among 14 industrial democracies for avoiding deaths preventable by health care.
One measure of inequality is the Gini coefficient. “G” would be zero if everyone’s income in a country were equal, 100 if all income went to just one person. According to the 2010 CIA World Factbook, Sweden’s G is 23, Denmark’s 24, Norway’s 25, Germany’s 27, and the Netherlands 31. For the entire European Union the G is 31. Compare these with a G of 34 for the UK, a 39 for Israel, 42 for Russia, 43 for China, and 45 for the U.S.
Within the U.S., inequality has grown since the mid-1970s. In 1974, only 8 percent of all income went to the top 1 percent. In 2007, more than 24 percent did. The net worth of the wealthiest 1 percent now exceeds that of the bottom 90 percent. In 1980, executive pay in large U.S. corporations was 40 times that of the average worker. In 2007, it was 350 times.
In terms of intergenerational social mobility, the U.S. ranks well below Denmark, Australia, Norway, Finland, Canada, Sweden, Germany and Spain.
Health and inequality
In The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett report that more equal countries such as Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, and Japan have longer life expectancies, lower infant mortality, and lower prevalence of obesity than do less equal countries such as the U.K., Portugal, Australia, or the U.S.
Linking health with inequality is the stress hormone cortisol. In lower status positions, primates, rodents, and humans experience higher chronic stress than do their higher status counterparts. Higher chronic stress releases more cortisol that, in turn, triggers a cascade of pathological effects that include chronic constriction of blood vessels, raised levels of blood-clotting factors leading to hypertension, heart disease, obesity, and a suppressed immune system.
Climate change and inequality
Socioeconomic inequality generates status anxiety—one judges one’s “worth” primarily in relation to others. As others in one’s comparative status group acquire more material “symbols” of achievement, one feels compelled to do the same to maintain relative standing. Sophisticated marketing conditions us to believe that consumption restores relative status and thus relieves anxiety. Until, of course, someone else in our comparative status group upsets that ephemeral equilibrium with a newer car, a higher tech TV or tablet computer, or a bigger house in a more upscale neighborhood. In the race for status, as in the arms race, there are no permanent winners, only permanent players. Yale’s Henry Wallich has observed, “So long as there is growth, there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable.”
Inequality undermines trust and community. It renders government vulnerable to special interests seeking to maximize short-term profit. Inequality, especially rising inequality, promotes status competition, social divisiveness, and weakens the will of the many to organize to defend common interests against the specialized interests of the few. Inequality corrodes social bonds, erodes friendship, diminishes civic participation, and attenuates trust in government.
Seeking refuge from the uncertainty of potential social malaise, the privileged retreat to gated communities where their wealth and membership fees provide police and fire protection, secure recreation, and access to private education. Because the gated privileged finance such “public goods” with their “own” money, they tend to oppose the taxes necessary to ensure that citizens beyond the gate enjoy a “civilized life” made possible only by adequate public goods and services.
Increased public alienation, diminished civic participation, and a weakened will to organize create an atomized electorate and a government vulnerable to special interest influence, particularly to the influence of organized special interests.
In the context of a public neutered and neutralized by growing inequality, special corporate interests prevail to ensure Congress takes no action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Notable among these special interests are corporations such as Exxon Mobil and “think tanks” that amplify climate change deniers and skeptics such as The Heartland Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Marshall Institute.
Thus, greater socioeconomic inequality provides a cogent reason why the U.S. lags Europe in both health and in greenhouse gas reductions. Having observed these differences upon return from Europe, the truly thoughtful Sierra traveler pauses to consider the words of the futurist Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Richard A. Rehberg, Ph.D., a member of the Susquehanna Group Atlantic Chapter, Sierra Club, is a professor emeritus of public policy at Binghamton University.
Postscript: I doubt Dick will ever see this re-post of his 2009 Sierra Club article, then again, you never know. A long time ago at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Binghamton, of which at the time we were both members, he gave a lecture / sermon. He told about his years of study about global warming and the threat of climate change.
I had forgotten his name and the Chairman of the Department of Physics helped me recall. I told him, and I tell you now, if you ever do read this Professor Rehberg, your talk opened my eyes. Then Jim Hansen caught my heart. And, Jo-Jo tickled my fancy. Those are other stories.
- Top 6 U.S. climate-policy happenings of 2011 (grist.org)
- Corporate Climate Responsibility Measured In Climate Counts’ 2011 Report (PHOTOS) (huffingtonpost.com)
- Argonne study finds shale gas GHG lifecycle emissions 6% lower than natural gas, 23% lower than gasoline and 33% lower than coal; upstream methane leakage a key contributor (greencarcongress.com)