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UMaine hosts third Socialist and Marxist Studies Series on climate change

On Nov. 4, Cindy Isenhour, an associate professor of anthropology and climate change, gave the presentation for the third installment of the Socialist and Marxist Studies Series. Isenhour focused on the relationship between climate change and inequality. 

Isenhour’s background in anthropology and climate change led her to investigate the connection between inequality and the carbon footprint emitted on the local and global scale. While people have been aware of issues related to power, equity and justice as it relates to inequality, there has not been much discussion on how wealth and social status play a role in mitigation while planning climate adaptation programs. 

Isenhour elaborated on the amount of time developed nations have been enabling their development through fossil fuels. The cost of development has been shared globally, but the responsibility has been unequal. 

 Isenhour shared reports from the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). “Available evidence indicates that this relationship is characterized by a vicious cycle, whereby initial inequality causes the disadvantaged groups to suffer disproportionately from the adverse effects of climate change, resulting in greater subsequent inequality.” 

Paying attention to individual wealth, Isenhour discussed how there are many privileges the wealthy have regarding climate change that are not brought to light. For example, members of the wealthier class have the ability to move or build barriers to protect their home. On the other hand, families that are impoverished have more barriers to overcome and a lack of resources to mitigate, flee the general inability to protect their home, revise the architecture or have the ability to deal with environmental consequences at the most basic level. 

Isenhour further elaborated about this inequality. “Those who contribute the least greenhouse gases are the projected group to be the most impacted by climate change,” Isenhour said.

Isenhour then introduced the five reasons affecting the question of inequality and climate change: high incomes driving emissions, inequality enables environmental degradation, inequality is the root of cost externalization and artificially cheap consumption and inequality results in failures of climate cooperation. 

Isenhour presented evidence from multiple sources. “[The] most reliable predictor of carbon footprint is income,” Isenhour said, referencing a 2018 study by Moser and Kleinhückelkotten.

This means that even the members of the wealthier class who are trying to be “green” still contribute a large carbon footprint and are responsible for a disproportionate amount of emission. To put this into perspective, Isenhour elaborated how on average, wealthy U.S. households emit 12 MT Co2e from driving, which is greater than the total footprint for the average poor household over eight months. 

“What we consume is very much a part of what group we want to belong to,” Isenhour said. “Satisfaction was linked to whether or not they (the households) were making the same amount as those in their peer groups.” 

 Her next slide presented how inequality drives status competition/consumption, which means that different class backgrounds compete for a higher status in society. This notion is linked to the idea of belonging, showcasing how society’s desire to belong has a stronger bearing than consumption, as more contentment was found in lower consumption and happiness had no link to household income. 

 At the end of her presentation, Isenhour discussed the idea of burden-shifting and how inequality causes a failure in contributing to help the climate crisis.

“At what extent do you trust that other people will be compliant, or will they free ride?” Isenhour said. “We know we can’t bring everyone up where we are, so we have to meet in the middle.” Isenhour ended her talk by describing how collective action is undermined, and there must be limitations and leveling.

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